A Film Series Looks Back on US Labor Movements

This Hot Union Summer rode on the back of the Great Resignation and has brought us to these times of picket line virality. The hashtags are witty, the solidarity is heartening, and the history, very humbling. 

Throughout most of this country’s history, labor movements have shaped, dictated, and determined how people work, earn money, and live in the United States. A free Labor Day screening series of 16mm films at Film at Lincoln Center’s Howard Gilman Theater is both a reminder and a celebration that workers, in this red-hot labor summer, are not alone. 

“Image entertainment, and the way motion pictures have traditionally worked at the public library, and especially before the 1970s — they were supposed to serve an educational purpose,” Eleni Rossi-Snook told Hyperallergic. A film specialist at the Reserve Film and Video Collection at the New York Public Library, which is co-hosting the screening series with Film at Lincoln Center, Rossi-Snook is also the series programmer. She added, “Even though we’re bringing this program into a more theatrical space, I still wanted to preserve that educational zeitgeist.”   

The series Labor Day on 16mm is most definitely edifying. It’s also free and accessible, as films highlighting the labor history of the country should be. The films go beyond current buzzwords and focus squarely on educating audiences about the foundational history of labor movements in the US.

Still from I Am Somebody, dir, Madeline Anderson, 1970

And it’s not an easy education. It is difficult to sit by and watch I Am Somebody, Madeline Anderson’s 1970 documentary about the 113-day strike by a union of some 400 hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1969 — to protest the firing of 12 Black women. In the film, peaceful protestors — all people of color — get thrown into police vans for demanding a pay raise of mere cents. Black nurses complain about being called racist names and yet the government refuses to own up to the racist nature of the violence. 

The events feel so familiar that the film almost inspires despair, but Anderson, in her role as the person documenting the labor strike, also manages to preserve the joy and camaraderie that defined the strike. “We gained recognition as human beings,” a medical worker declares after the strike is called off. 

“Yes, it’s about the strike. But because the film was made and filmed by a Black woman, about Black women, there’s this whole other [personal] context and lens, literally and figuratively, through which those nurses are being documented,” Rossi-Snook noted. 

Anderson shows a striking medical worker, Claire Brown, at her home, scrubbing a mirror clean with a rag, then sitting down to drink the coffee she has just brewed. Next, Brown appears at the protests. “If you’re ready and willing to fight for yourself, other folks will be ready and willing to fight for you,” recites her voiceover. The personal, for Anderson, was most definitely the political; labor takes place both in the home and out in the world. 

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Still from I Am Somebody, dir, Madeline Anderson, 1970

Anderson, for years, worked non-union jobs because largely White and male-run unions wouldn’t admit her. New York’s Local 771 accepted her as a member only after she threatened to sue. I Am Somebody exists because the Drug, Hospital, and Health Care Employees Local 1199 union in New York called her in 1968 and asked if she’d be interested in making a film about striking Black American medical workers in Charleston, South Carolina.

“The goal of any film program I do is to generate some cognitive energy,” Rossi-Snook asserted. “We want people to think about and experience the films as individual works. But also, and maybe more importantly, as a mosaic.” 

After the credits have rolled on in I Am Somebody, the lone IATSE logo occupies the dark screen. The other films in the series — Crystal Lee Jordan (1975) (mill worker Crystal Lee Jordan’s activism later inspired the feature film Norma Rae), Peter Schlaifer’s Loose Bolts? (1973), Ralph Arlyck’s Undelivered: No Such Country (1975) — are all important documents of organizing around labor. But they are also art created through labor, a point that is worth remembering as the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes continue. 

Rossi-Snook appreciates that in mosaics seemingly disparate ideas come together to create a cognitive whole. “The thing that I wanted to do is to … tease out an understanding of that [labor] experience, both then and now,” she expressed. “The films were produced in the 1970s, but how might these work like primary documents, how might they unlock a greater conversation or understanding about the workforce and labor and labor movements today?” 

As she reminded me, she doesn’t work at an archive. The Reserve Film and Video Collection at the NYPL is an archival lending collection. The intention is to allow people the access, and the choice, to borrow a piece of history, and watch it at home, in the library, or wherever else they have a screen. The point is to listen to what the films say and, from there, to build a mosaic.

The specific mosaic of this film series attains another layer in light of the widespread labor uprising New York City’s 1970s fiscal crisis caused; the NYPL took a strong hit. Unions saved the city from bankruptcy back then. 

The film series is not a “sizzle reel of decades of union organizing,” Rossi-Snook explained. “It is a celebration of a whole generation that [withstood] incarceration and torture just so we [as workers] could have basic rights.” 

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Still from I Am Somebody, dir, Madeline Anderson, 1970

Film Comment Live: Labor Day on 16mm with the New York Public Library takes place at Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center’s Howard Gilman Theater (144 West 65th Street, Lincoln Square, Manhattan) on August 31. Tickets will be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis.

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