Documenting Workers

By Quart, Leonard; Kornblum, William | Dissent, October 1, 2001 | Go to article overview

Documenting Workers


Quart, Leonard, Kornblum, William, Dissent


FILMS ABOUT labor organizing and labor unions come along too rarely, and the best of them are usually documentaries that attract pitifully small audiences. So the debut of Bread and Roses, a feature film on labor by Britain's Ken Loach, is an event worthy of attention. Loach's film arrives at the same time as a new documentary by Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow, Secrets of Silicon Valley, which looks at labor issues in the famous high-tech mecca. The films illustrate two very different ways of attempting to translate contemporary labor issues to the screen.

Loach is an unabashedly politically radical, social-realist filmmaker, one of the few directors who makes films that depict working-class characters confronting oppressive labor conditions, indifferent unions, and callous government bureaucracies. In making Bread and Roses, Loach adds to the slim number of Hollywood films that tackle real issues facing working people. What is most unusual about this film is its attempt to mix entertainment, political polemic, and an introduction to Organizing 101 in the same work.

Loach's films have often focused on labor issues. One of his best-known works, the seriocomic Riff Raff (1993), is set on a nonunion London construction site where luxury condominiums are being built. In Riff Raff, Loach's London is a harsh, class-bifurcated city where the homeless sleep in doorways and eat ravenously out of garbage baskets, and sullen, unemployed, drug-dealing young men permanently inhabit the staircases of dismal, graffiti-- filled housing projects. The workers on the building site are a variegated group of exploited Liverpudlians, Glaswegians, native Londoners, Africans, and West Indians who labor under false names and insecure and life-threatening conditions without any redress. By the film's climax, two of the men's fury with the working conditions is so great that they burn down the partially completed building. The camera lingers heavy-handedly on the raging flames and rats fleeing the fire-a quasi-anarcho-syndicalist affirmation of class war, stemming more from Loach's political vision than from the social consciousness of the film's characters.

Bread and Roses takes place in Los Angeles. The film is based on the ongoing Justice for Janitors campaign organized by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It's Loach's first American-made film, and he centers it on a feisty, sharp-witted, bilingual illegal Mexican immigrant, Maya (Pilar Padilla), who turns into a militant unionist over the course of the film. (In two of Loach's earlier films, Land and Freedom (1994), set during the Spanish Civil War, and Carla's Song (1996), set in Nicaragua during the contra-Sandinista conflict, he creates passionate, albeit sentimentalized, heroines that are models for Maya.)

The film's opening scenes prefigure the bold and spontaneous Maya's turning into a strike leader. In a brilliantly vertiginous sequence with a great deal of gasping for air and shouting (shot with a handheld camera), Maya and other illegal immigrants flee through the brush across the border. Upon her safe arrival in LA, Maya's sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), gets her a job where she works, cleaning in a downtown building filled with the offices of banks and high paid Hollywood lawyers. Loach uses a number of long shots that capture the modern office building looming over the cleaners-an image that neatly encapsulates the nature of power and class relations in LA.

The cleaners are employed by Angel Cleaning Services, a nonunion contracting company that takes advantage of their undocumented status. The company does not provide them with health insurance or other benefits and pays them $5.75 an hour for long days-in real dollars, less than half what cleaners were getting twenty years before. In the film, the cleaners have little political or union consciousness until Sam (Adrien Brody), the sweet-natured, anarchic union organizer, convinces most of them about the need to join a union. …

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