By Ashton Starr
Author’s note: Streaming companies’ offerings change frequently, but these links were working locally in Canada at the time of publishing. We recommend checking your local libraries for these films before paying for streaming rental or subscription services — some of the links we’ve provided are to the Ottawa Public Library video services.
You’ve binge-watched Squid Game (2021-) and Superstore (2015-2021) on Netflix and already rewatched Parasite (2019) for the tenth time. That means you’ve already consumed a lot of on-screen criticism of capitalism and are eager for more.
While each of those examples offer a fictional depiction of late-stage capitalism and its horrors — even as they seemingly creep closer to reality with every passing year — we wanted to make a list that pointed towards more positive, real-world examples on film.
Of course, it’s also true that all films have political messages and can be analyzed from a leftist perspective. After all, all films are “political documents” — as the hosts of Kino Lefter, a podcast exploring films from a broadly leftist perspective, put it — since they “both reflect and create the narratives that shape how we view the world around us.” However, with this list, we want to focus on films that depict stories of class struggle not solely as a losing battle or an analogy told through a fantastical lense. These are films that explicitly tell of our labour victories — whether historical-fiction or semi-biographical.
As we noted in our 2020 article “Video Games for Leftists,” the Leveller is interested in all art and culture that embodies liberatory politics, and we think all these films deserve a look.
Salt of the Earth (1954)
A victim of mid-century censorship, Salt of the Earth tells a dramatized story of a famous zinc miners’ strike in New Mexico. The production was a dramatic story of its own, spurring the documentary A Crime to Fit the Punishment (1980) and the biopic One of the Hollywood Ten (2000), which was about the filmmakers as they faced blacklisting during the McCarthy era. Part of the production team had been blacklisted for refusing to participate in the House Un-American Activities Committee’s anti-communist investigations.
The film itself was blacklisted from most American theatres due to its sponsorship from the Local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW), whose members were the subject — and some of the stars — of the film. The IUMMSW had already been expelled in 1950 from the Congress of Industrial Organizations, who saw the union as a communist threat.
However, the story of its production shouldn’t outshine the actual content of the film, as the film still holds up almost 60 years later. Salt of the Earth intimately follows a Mexican-American family through their company-owned home, the father’s last working days in the mine before attending the union meetings that subsequently leads to a work stoppage, and how the entirety of the mining families unify and engage in the strike.
The film is often heralded as a feminist labour film. Not only does it recognize the value of women’s domestic labour, it shows how women’s creative and democratic contributions to the strike dramatically impact the outcome of the union struggle. This ties directly into its honest portrayal of labour strikes, from the seemingly monotonous walking of a dusty picket line, to the collaboration between state authorities and mine company owners that enacts violence on the working families.
In the end, as history demonstrated, the workers are victorious, but the story of how they succeeded is a series of suspenseful, thrilling, heartbreaking, and uplifting events. Despite being blacklisted, the film was screened by unions and activist organizations throughout the 1960s, and had eventual home video releases after the 1980s. Salt of the Earth was not only able to survive the persecution of the McCarthy era, but to marvelously dance on its grave as a wonderful piece of rebellious art.
Why would we want the media we consume to be evocative of a capitalist hellscape we already live in?
So we don’t forget how to fight against it.
Norma Rae (1979)
Workplace disruptions, strike actions, and near-riots on the picket line are all exciting depictions of labour union organizing — and they’re all absent in Norma Rae. Based on a true story from six years before the film was made, Norma Rae is such a realistic depiction because it demonstrates the dullness of typical workplace organizing.
When New York City union staff member Reuben is tasked with organizing a rural North Carolina textile mill, he relentlessly solicits local mill workers by knocking on doors, flyering outside of the mill, and showing up at community meeting places. The campaign really starts to progress, though, when single mother and mill worker, Norma Rae, agrees to join and sign up her coworkers.
The film’s build-up shows Norma Rae and Reuben going over and writing documents in a hotel room, with climatic “action scenes” of employees waiting on the results of the union certification vote and of Norma Rae copying down an anti-union bulletin posted by management. (This happened to the real-life Norma Rae, leading to her termination and public case against the employer.) The film doesn’t shy away from the banal, but it also is willing to engage with the internal strife that goes along with organizing a union campaign.
An important part of Norma Rae is this labour realism. It shows conversations that take place within unions and the push-and-pull relationships between union staff and non-union workers. When Reuben complains of not being able to reach other mill workers, Norma, as an uneducated, rural working class woman, has to explain to him that he is an outsider to their community. A later scene also shows other union representatives meeting with Reuben to criticize his recruitment of Norma Rae based on her character. He counters their assumptions about the rural town’s attitude towards her and defends her leadership and hard work on the union campaign against the outside representatives.
The film goes further into discussions about race, gender, and class that include and oppose common tropes of rural working class culture. Reuben is immediately met with violent anti-Semitism when attempting to meet with workers, but workers also accept and show legitimate interest in his Jewish identity. The company incites racist violence against Black workers as part of their anti-union campaign, but the organized workers recognize this as an abusive tactic against their racially integrated community.
In 2022, as public union campaigns in warehouses and service locations across the continent begin to reignite, films like Norma Rae are still very relevant because they show a dramatized version of events and conversations that take place behind the scenes. There is a massive amount of work that happens before a union drive goes public, and Norma Rae’s character personifies the passion and emotion behind the scenes of those campaigns.
With far less of a modern setting than other films on this list, Matewan is based on a 1920 coal miner strike that escalated into a shootout on the streets of a West Virginian mountain town. This film depicts staples of early American union strikes — like company-owned housing where the employer serves as the landlord too, company-owned stores which sell equipment needed for work sold using wage deductions or company-issued vouchers, and a transient workforce that moved by train from town to town wherever better work was promised.
However, most of the union campaign dynamics of Salt of the Earth and Norma Rae are still there in Matewan, despite it being set 30 to 50 years earlier. In particular, each of the films show the dangerous and even deadly working conditions in mines and factories, where the profitable companies attempt to squeeze as much wealth as possible out of workers, right down to the pennies.
Both companies in Norma Rae and Matewan used racial animosity as a wedge between workers. In Matewan, the coal company used Italian migrants and Black workers as a replacement workforce of scabs. Despite Matewan’s more vivid imagery of racist violence by white workers towards Black workers, both depictions have the union overcoming this division through class solidarity.
The difference here is that the strike looked significantly different, with Matewan being very descriptive of the intense violence companies were able to inflict against striking workers. The most damning fact is that the company hired a detective agency to infiltrate the union, spread lies to instigate animosity between workers, and open fire on the strikers.
Unfortunately, the century that has passed since the events depicted in Matewan does not make the film irrelevant. In the past year, the company town is currently being re-imagined by Amazon and Elon Musk. The history of unions fighting against the massive power of capitalists shouldn’t be forgotten, from the most intense exploitation and violence, to the successes of working class solidarity.
Land and Freedom (1995)
British director Ken Loach centres almost all of his films on the struggles of working people, whether it’s custodial workers organizing a union in Bread and Roses (2000) or the Irish workers seeking independence in The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006).
Land and Freedom stands out as one of the few film adaptations of the Spanish civil war, alongside the women-led Libertarias (1996) and the fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). It highlights the anarchist and communist labour union forces fighting against General Francisco Franco’s fascists.
To do this, Land and Freedom tells the fictional story of a communist sympathizer who travels from the United Kingdom to join the international volunteer brigades in Spain. As the film explains in a brief introduction, the Spanish Civil War began in 1936 after a coalition of left-leaning parties won the general election and proposed democratic reforms to Spain. The coalition and their reforms were opposed by capitalists and religious and nationalist parties and institutions, and an uprising by the military aimed to topple the democratic government. The most visible forces in the film are the anarchist CNT-FAI labour union, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification (POUM), and a popular front whose working class membership took up arms against the military.
The new British volunteer acts as the surrogate for the viewer as he sees collectivist and liberatory politics practiced on the ground of a warzone. The narration and headlines shown throughout the film also demonstrate how these workers’ struggles relate to the larger geopolitical fight between fascists and communists globally.
The movie almost feels like an indirect adaptation of George Orwell’s memoir Homage to Catalonia (1938), Orwell’s personal account of also joining the POUM during the civil war. The viewer ends up seeing the contradictions between how disorganized and well-organized these militias were, the interpersonal in-fighting and political debates, as well as the victories and losses they faced.
As history shows, the militias eventually split, leading to a three-way fight between the Soviet Union-sponsored militias, the remaining anarchists, and Franco’s fascists — with Franco’s forces eventually winning. It can be a difficult film to watch, seeing comrades overcome disputes but knowing the eventual devastation of a failed revolution is coming. Yet it is still important to understand the nuances of that failure — and what was accomplished.
Land and Freedom is a unique entry to this list as it shows an armed struggle of liberation. Due to its class politics and union involvement, though, it deserves to be side-by-side with films about workplace organizing and strikes.
For those who want to dive deeper into this theme, two important films that show colonized people liberating themselves through armed uprisings are Battle of Algiers (1966) and Burn! (1969). Both were directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. Battle of Algiers was banned in France for its unflattering depiction of French colonial forces suppressing Algerian people,while Burn! is about an African slave uprising on a fictional island inspired by the Cuban revolution.
Made in Dagenham (2010)
On a much lighter note, Made in Dagenham is a fictional depiction of women workers during the real events of the 1968 sewing machinists strike against the Ford Motor Company. The strike was launched when women workers in the British sewing plant had their jobs reclassified into an unskilled category, leading the women-staffed plant to vote for labour actions with the union.
Made in Dagenham makes us privy to grievance and negotiation processes, as the union and contracts already exist. What could have been a series of dull bargaining discussions between suits for the union and company over job classifications is upended by strong women characters pushing against corporate and bureaucratic misogyny. The film brings a lot of comedy to the process as well, making it a fun journey through an otherwise tormenting time of sexual discrimination within the 1960s British workforce.
The union bargaining table is rarely shown on film, at least not as explicitly or to the length Made in Dagenham does. As a companion piece to Norma Rae, it fits perfectly into the union organizing chronology between organizing, certification, and essentially filing grievances. After Norma Rae wins the union, it’s easy to imagine her in the position of this film’s lead, Rita O’Grady. O’Grady pushes against traditional values held by union brass, broadens the demands against management to include women’s equality, and stages rallies and speeches at other plants in the union to join in labour disruptions for those demands.
Gender politics are on the forefront of the film, with women seeking equal pay and an end of sexual discrimination on the job. However, it makes an odd choice to display scenes of men taking on domestic labour as a comedy bit. This is in contrast to how men are shown doing the same jobs in Salt of the Earth as a necessary and positive thing — and it was filmed 56 years earlier.
It also makes an unusual choice to demonstrate a parallel story between the working class women of the Dagenham plant and Barbara Castle, the Labour Party’s Secretary of State for Employment during 1968. In the early going, Castle doesn’t really support O’Grady’s push against management and the union itself. Yet eventually, the film has an almost magical transition from class warfare to comradery between O’Grady and Castle who bond due to their shared gendered oppression and fashion sense. This final act ultimately shows a party that would eventually push anti-union policies as a sympathetic character to labour.
While arguably falling flat in its final act, it is an important and inspirational film to add to a small repertoire of labour films that shows more than sensational industrial action.
Pride is that rare film that covers the intersection of LGBTQ+ and labour politics. This rarity is disappointing, as labour history has plenty of stories of LGBTQ+ workers organizing, supporting strikes, and collaborating with labour unions, as Kim Kelly documents in Teen Vogue.
Pride is a dramatic comedy based on real events during the 1984 National Union of Miners strike in Wales. The film follows fictional character Joe Cooper, a closeted gay youth from a homophobic family, as he marches in his first pride parade. Cooper is the proxy for the audience, who stumbles into the ranks of a small group of activists, including gay activist and communist Mark Ashton. After learning about the miners in Wales, Ashton becomes excited and looks to his comrades to raise funds for the striking workers. He initially identifies with the workers’ struggles, finding similarities between the hatred and violence inflicted on the strikers by politicians and police and the treatment of LGBTQ+ activists.
When strike funds are raised under the banner Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), the Welsh union local invites members to visit the strikers. The culture shock between the rural community and the urban queers leads to a lot a lot of comedy. Pride has fun clashing the eccentric with the modest, as well as punk-rock and disco with classic labour folk songs and, without punching down or mocking anyone.
Pride does an excellent job of displaying the tension between openly gay and lesbian political radicals and conservative elements within the union bureaucracy and rank-and-file. However, the film cuts that tension with beautiful moments of genuine care between the union and LGSM. This happens frequently in the film, as the groups’ relationship spans months throughout the strike, and reciprocal support is shown beyond financial aid. LGSM shows up in the mining towns to offer practical and in-person support, and union members push back against anti-queer and homophobia within their community.
The world needs more films like Pride, as this is an important piece of art that reminds us of the little-known history of intersectional politics within labour and the internal strife within union organizing. As a cap on the films for leftists list, it sets the tone for hope in our collective struggles against the capitalist class and how we can overcome bigotry within our own ranks.
Optimistically Looking Forward to More Labour in Film
A sure sign that is more to come has been Sorry to Bother You (2019), a magical realist comedy by communist and unionist Boots Riley. While focussing more on the personal and political struggles of a Black working class in the telecommunications industry, it doesn’t follow through on union organizing as a process, but instead utilizes labour organizing as a wonderful spectacle.
Each of these listed films have been heralded by critical acclamation—and rightfully so, as international labour movements have important and spectacular stories to share.