While Labor Day isn’t until September (and is traditionally more celebrated for its long weekend than its supposed recognition of worker’s rights), May 1 is the real deal. Called International Workers’ Day, it’s also the date of Space’s free screening of directors Stewart Bird and Deborah Shaffer’s appropriately rabble-rousing 1979 documentary “The Wobblies.”

Presented by Space, alongside the Southern Maine Labor Council and The Southern Maine Workers’ Center, “The Wobblies” explores the founding, principles and lasting legacy of the Industrial Workers of the World (aka the IWW, or The Wobblies). Founded in Chicago in 1905, this workers’ union was a wide-ranging and influential movement to organize all workers in opposition to exploitation and unfair practices by employers. Unlike the more mainstream American Federation of Labor (AFL), the IWW accepted all workers, regardless of profession, or – most revolutionary and threatening at the time – their race, gender or immigrant status.

The film interviews still-fiery Wobblies a half-century after the IWW was brought low by government and industrial persecution and even violence. Not surprising, since the IWW mission statement is pretty clear on just what is the primary cause of suffering among the vast majority of people in the world: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people, and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.”

Unequivocal stuff, and sentiments that still maintain relevance in a time where, just to pick an example, corporate profits during a years-long pandemic have risen exponentially while real wages (wages adjusted for inflation) have gone down. Oh, and where impossibly successful major employers (like Amazon and Starbucks) are currently engaged in very public efforts to discredit, discourage and retaliate against employees’ efforts to unionize for better pay and conditions.

So, workers (and movie-goers) of the world, unite! Here are the best films about workers, unions and sticking it to the man.

“Matewan” (1987, available at the Portland Public Library). Maverick indie director John Sayles crafted the most stirring and complexly heroic depiction of the American labor movement in this exquisitely acted, multi-character story about a United Mine Workers organizer (the great Chris Cooper, in his debut) attempting to unionize West Virginia miners in 1920. Based on a true story (which, not to spoil anything, is known to this day as the Matewan Massacre), “Matewan” is a sadly overlooked American classic. (The famed Criterion Collection finally put out a deluxe edition of the film in 2019. I’ve got mine.)

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While the IWW gets mentioned, the Wobblies were on their way out at the time, with Cooper’s Joe Kenehan upbraiding the union-curious miners for excluding both the Italian and Black workers (brought in as unwitting scabs) who want to band together with them. There’s no more stirring scene in movies than when outsider Kenehan stands up to a roomful of gun-toting white miners to upbraid them for disrespectfully dismissing the efforts of James Earl Jones’ courageous and formidable miner to join. Navigating the explosive situation with orator’s passion, Cooper’s Kenehan sums things up perfectly: “Now they got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign, holler against holler, when you know there ain’t but two sides to this world – them that work, and them that don’t.” A masterpiece for any time of the year.

“Bread and Roses” (2000, available at the Portland Public Library). Controversial and outspoken British director Ken Loach was just the filmmaker to tackle these same issues, updated and transplanted to the underclass of Mexican custodial workers in Los Angeles. Adrien Brody, two years before his best actor Oscar, plays a live-wire union organizer who approaches undocumented immigrant Pilar Padilla about forming a union for her and her woefully underpaid and mistreated janitorial workers. There’s a hint of a charming little love story in the film, but Loach, a lifelong and pragmatic idealist himself, stays focused on Padilla’s many and wrenching conflicts as she deals with everything from a sleazy supervisor preying upon undocumented workers without options (comic George Lopez, who’s excellent), hazardous and demeaning conditions, and, most evocatively, the divisions of race, class and family that make her position a seeming no-win, no matter what she chooses. As in the better-known pro-union film “Norma Rae,” there’s a great scene where Padilla’s Maya reminds the well-intentioned but privileged (thanks to his gender, color and status) outsider that, while they may be on the same side, she has much, much more to lose than he does.

“Pride” (2014, available on Amazon Prime). Based on true events from 1984 Great Britain, this improbable real-life story of unity depicts the time when a group of LGBTQ activists joined forces with Welsh miners. A gaggle of great British actors (Imelda Staunton, Bill Nighy, Andrew Scott, Paddy Considine) show how two oppressed but very different groups managed to form a bond based on the gradual understanding that there are forces in this world that rely on the people they variously exploit being at each others’ throats. A feel-good movie with some very serious points to make, “Pride” is guardedly hopeful about people’s willingness to find a little common ground in the face of systemic persecution. Which is why movies about unions (and unions themselves) can feel so threatening – to certain interests.

“The Wobblies” screens at Portland’s Space on Sunday at 7 p.m. The screening is free, but people are advised to RSVP.

Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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