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Social Psychology and the Labor Union in American Cinema

  Why is it that an American film always ends in the same way? The good guy always gets the beautiful girl. The man in the white hat always comes out on top. The underdog team wins the big game. Good always wins out over evil. Are these cinematic stereotypes engrained into our psyche for a reason? The purpose of this essay is to explore the psychological and sociological ideas of various thinkers and writers, including Gustave Le Bon, Walter Lippmann and Gabriel Tarde, and see how their tenets apply to labor unions as they are depicted in American cinema.

Some of the most thought-provoking dramas to come out of the American movie scene involve the labor union, either as a “central character” or protagonist or as a backdrop for the story. An American audience couldn’t ask for a better person to root for or empathize with than the working man or woman. The dock worker, the brick layer, the carpenter, the factory worker, the miner, the teacher, the fireman and, yes, even the cops, all have one thing in common. They probably belong to a labor union of some kind. Let us examine a quotation from the Introduction to Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd:


“The masses are founding syndicates before which the authorities capitulate one after the other; they are also founding labour unions, which in spite of all economic laws tend to regulate the conditions of labour and wages.”
(Le Bon, pp. xv - xvi)


There is some truth that unions do tend to regulate “the conditions of labour and wages” as do different forms of government. However, sometimes either the corporation or firm that the union laborers are employed by is corrupt, or the union delegates are on the graft or both. Films that portray a labor union usually have a theme of suppression with threads of corruption and greed woven into the celluloid tapestry, tainted with the colors of anger, rebellion and, in some cases, death.

On the Waterfront (1954)

Corruption runs deep in the 1954 union drama, On the Waterfront. Filmed in Hoboken, New Jersey, the Waterfront Crime Commission is about to hold public hearings on union crime and underworld infiltration. As workers are turned against each other, Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) inadvertently participates in the murder of fellow longshoreman, Joey Doyle. Union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb) orchestrates the murder along with other illegal dockside activities. Ironically, the character of Friendly is anything but that. Le Bon expounds on “leaders of crowds” and their power:

The leaders of crowds wield a very despotic authority, and this despotism indeed is a condition of their obtaining a following. It has often been remarked how easily they extort obedience, although without any means of backing up their authority, from the most turbulent section of the working classes. They fix the hours of labour and the rate of wages, and they decree strikes, which are begun and ended at the hour they ordain.
(Le Bon, pp. 115-116)

Later in the film, as Terry begins to feel pangs of conscience, the “wanna be” prize fighter turns to Father Barry (Karl Malden) for encouragement. The “potato-eating” Father Barry sums up the waterfront situation by saying:

“Isn't it simple as one, two, three? One. The working conditions are bad. Two. They're bad because the mob does the hiring. And three. The only way we can break the mob is to stop letting them get away with murder.”

Terry bonds closely with Father Barry, an Irish-Catholic priest. Gabriel Tarde described priests as one of the original “fountains of reason” that appeals to the “sheeplike enthusiams of the multitudes.” (Tarde, p. 298) Social Darwinism rears its ugly head as Terry quips, “Listen, down here, it’s every man for himself.”

Norma Rae (1979)

In the 1979 drama Norma Rae, Sally Field plays Norma Rae, a southern textile worker employed in a factory with intolerable working conditions. Her deep concern about the situation gives her the gumption to be the key associate to a visiting labor union organizer from New York City named Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman). Together, they undertake the difficult, and somewhat dangerous struggle to unionize her Alabama textile mill.

At a critical moment in the film, Reuben Warshowsky tells the story of his grandfather’s funeral in New York City:


“Also present were eight hundred and sixty-two members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and Cloth, Hat and Cap Makers' Union. Also, members of his family. In death as in life, they stood at his side. They had fought battles with him, bound the wounds of battle with him, had earned bread together and had broken it together. When they spoke, they spoke in one voice, and they were heard. They were black, they were white, they were Irish, they were Polish, they were Catholic, they were Jews, they were one. That's what a union is: one.”

Despite their different ethnicities and cultural teachings, the union described by Warshowsky is a union of one. However, Le Bon’s thoughts on race and crowds differ somewhat from those of Warshowsky:

“A crowd composed of individuals assembled at haphazard, but all of them Englishmen or Chinamen, will differ widely from another crowd also composed of individuals of any and every description, but of other races--Russians, Frenchmen, or Spaniards, for example.” (Le Bon, p. 159)

Harvard socialist and philosopher, Walter Lippmann, comments on labor unions and big business in his 1914 book, Drift and Mastery:

The fact is that nothing is so stubbornly resisted as the attempt to organize labor into effective unions. Yet it is labor organized that alone can stand between America and the creation of a permanent, servile class.
(Lippmann, Drift and Mastery)

Matewan (1987)

Let us examine a film by John Sayles that exposes race, religion and “the crowd” known as the labor union. Set in Mingo County, West Virginia in 1920, Matewan explores the lives of coal miners, struggling to form a union, who are up against company operators and gun thugs. African-American and Italian-American miners, brought in by the company to break the strike, are caught between the two forces. Union activist and ex-Wobbly, Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper), sent to help organize the union, determines to bring the local, African-American and Italian groups together. The film was based upon an actual incident known as the “Matewan Massacre,” in which ten men lost their lives. Joe Kenehen, the union activist, describes the racial tension in the film:

“You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a goddam club! They got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain't but two sides in this world - them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you get to know about the enemy.”

Actor, director and writer, John Sayles, takes his audience into the coal mining camps of central and southern Appalachia. These were self-contained communities under the control of the "company." The company, known as the Stone Mountain Coal Company in the film, built churches just the same as bars, stores, houses, and the doctor's office to provide for the operation of the mines and assuring the highest profit for the owners. This “welfare capitalism” supplemented the salaries of the ministers of the coal camps and expected support in return. The more fundamental churches were usually not supported by the company and were located on private land not under the control of the company. Sayles portrays the character, Hardshell Preacher in the film. Le Bon comments on the “religious shape” of the crowd and the “working soul of the masses”:

Upheavals … are only possible when it is the soul of the masses that brings them about. The most absolute despots could not cause them. When historians tell us that the massacre of Saint Bartholomew was the work of a king, they show themselves as ignorant of the psychology of crowds as of that of sovereigns. Manifestations of this order can only proceed from the soul of crowds. The most absolute power of the most despotic monarch can scarcely do more than hasten or retard the moment of their apparition. The massacre of Saint Bartholomew or the religious wars were no more the work of kings than the Reign of Terror was the work of Robespierre, Danton, or Saint Just. At the bottom of such events is always to be found the working of the soul of the masses, and never the power of potentates. (Le Bon, pp. 65-66)

In looking at the structure of power in these three labor union films, even though the crowd in the form of a labor union is a group of people interacting together, they all need a leader. Walter Lippmann elaborates on the role of the leader in The Distribution of Power chapter from his book, Public Opinion:

The priest, the lord of the manor, the captains and the kings, the party leaders, the merchant, the boss, however these men are chosen, whether by birth, inheritance, conquest, or election, they and their organized following administer human affairs...
(Lippmann, Public Opinion)

In conclusion, the labor union in American cinema is both engaging and popular, as the common viewer can relate to the struggles of the worker against the big bad company. In documentary films such as Harlan County, USA (Barbara Kopple) and Roger & Me (Michael Moore), the plight of the union worker is taken even further through the lens of reality and truth. Other labor union dramas such as Salt of the Earth and F.I.S.T. provide good fodder for the tenets and thoughts of Le Bon, Lippmann and other writers of social psychology.

Sources

Le Bon, Gustave. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. January 2002.

Lippmann, Walter. Public Opinion. New York: The Free Press. 1965

Lippmann, Walter. Drift and Mastery. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. 1961.

Tarde, Gabriel. Opinion and Conversation. Paris: Alcan. 1898.



Author: Harlan Whatley

 

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Last Updated: 18 March, 2006