May 21, 2010

ALSC to feature film on labor history

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: New York Teacher

Labor leaders and teachers are always looking for an effective film with which to introduce labor history. "If You Don't Come in on Sunday, Don't Come in on Monday" may be it. The film will be shown by the American Labor Studies Center on Thursday, May 27, at New York State United Teachers, 800 Troy-Schenectady Road, Latham, beginning at 7:30 p.m. No reservations are required and admission is free.

A bi-centennial project in 1976, it is an hour-long story, told in photographs, documents and historical footage, of workers in America from the settling of Jamestown in 1607 to the struggle of the United Farm Workers today. With a broad brush, it paints the contribution of workers to the survival of the colonies before the Revolution, and to the growth and development of the United States afterward. Nor does it omit a discussion of slavery or the exploitation of women and children that began with the Industrial revolution.

How can the history of the labor movement, from the first union of Philadelphia shoemakers in 1792 to the present, be told in one short film? Of necessity, much is omitted; generalizations are inevitable. But the high points are there, starting with an 1805 court decision declaring unions "conspiracies."

The bulk of film time is devoted to the 100 years following the Civil War, when national unions developed in response to the robber barons, and big business perfected its use of the ironclad oath and yellow-dog contract, the lockout, use of strikebreakers and spies. Some of the film high points include the Railroad Strike of 1877, the Knights of Labor, the Haymarket tragedy, the Homestead and Pullman strikes, and the birth of the American Federation of Labor.

The film turns, using footage used in "With These Hands," to the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, when 146 workers, most of them women, burned to death because windows and doors were bolted shut and fire ladders were too short. The Progressive Era and its emphasis on labor legislation can be better understood in this context. The key fight of workers has always been for union recognition. In a turn unusual for most films, some of the women who helped in this fight are included here: Mrs. George Rodgers of the Knights of Labor, Mother Jones, women who organized the ladies' and men's garment unions, Frances Perkins, and the Women's Emergency Brigade of the 1930s.

Using newsreel footage, the film covers labor events of the 20th century, from the Industrial Workers of the World and the Lawrence strike of 1912 through the tragic days of the Great Depression, then into the New Deal and the organization of the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The final portion of the film brings the viewers to 1976, discussing the impact of World War II in bringing new groups of workers into the labor movement, the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, and the newest union members, public employees. The final thrust of the film summarizes the accomplishments of the labor movement, but also states the problems that remain, of which union recognition for the millions still unorganized and full employment are two of the most critical.

ALSC Executive Director Paul F. Cole will lead a discussion of the film.

Additional teaching materials will be available.