Streaming Spotlight on the union movement

Trade unions, strikes and solidarity as seen on the silver screen

by Jennie Kermode

Strike (1925)
Strike (1925)

On the first day of May, almost a century on from Sergei Eistenstein’s Strike, we’re turning our spotlight on the labour movement as it’s portrayed in film, with a selection that looks at how standing together has helped workers around the world to challenge unfair treatment and cope with the stress of poor conditions. These are not all success stories but they’re engaging nonetheless, full of witty and resourceful characters, smart observations and rich humour.

Mondays In The Sun
Mondays In The Sun

Mondays In The Sun - Apple TV

Depicting a lengthy struggle as much about morale as it is about action, Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s Galician multiple-Goya winning drama stars Javier Bardem as a shipyard worker who, along with his colleagues, has been laid off after a strike. He makes the most of his freedom, but the men struggle to find employment and face spiralling social consequences, leading some of them to wonder if they did the right thing. The film sets out to paint a picture of a broken society in which standing together is the only way workers can hope to defend themselves, but along the way it depicts a depth of friendship that many would envy, and alongside the despair that several of the men feel, there’s a surprising amount of warmth.

Potiche
Potiche

Potiche - Amazon, Google Play

Also going by the name of Trophy Wife, François Ozon’s quirky, sharp-edged comedy stars Catherine Deneuve as a woman of a certain age who is beginning to get restless in the gilded cage her factory owner husband has built for her. As he engages in a sleazy affair with his secretary – who is also close to losing her patience – she renews her flirtation with an old flame (played by Gerard Depardieu) who just happens to be the leader of the factory’s striking workers. Nothing is quite what it seems, however, and she has surprises in store for both men as she begins to develop her own political identity. Musical numbers and moments straight out of Disney sit side by side with raucous (though never explicit) sex comedy as Ozon reminds us that you don’t need to follow a working class hero to support workers themselves.

American Factory
American Factory

American Factory -

The sacking of workers to make way for machines is an old, familiar story which even the Terminator franchise has touched on. In Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary, there’s a moment of hope when a Chinese company steps in to save an Ohio factory from closure, but culture clashes and differing attitudes to workers; rights mean that what follows is far from plain sailing. The incisive filmmakers gather a wealth of small details which help us get to know individuals and also connect with the general mood on the factory floor. They make an effort to show everyone’s humanity, including that of the boss who is afraid that raising safety standards could make it impossible for the business to compete, revealing a problem that is bigger than any one company’s approach.

Pride
Pride

Pride - Chili

Being part of a group which is politicised for other reasons can make it easy to identify with those who go up against the establishment to advocate for their rights as workers. Matthew Warchus’ energetic and often comedic film details what happened when, in 1984, a group of London-based LGBT activists decided to try and help striking miners in Wales. Naturally, there’s a culture clash, but once the miners realise that there is genuine concern for their welfare, a spirit of solidarity emerges and unexpected friendships form. There are many grim films out there which deal with the miners’ strikes but Pride is a reminder of the joy found in mutual support which enabled people to keep going.

Radium Girls
Radium Girls

Radium Girls - Amazon, Google Play

The case of the radium girls was one of history’s great tragedies. Before the danger of radiation was widely known, young women working on production lines used to paint glow-in-the-dark watch faces by hand using radioactive materials, licking their brushes to sharpen the points. They were only in their twenties when their teeth began to fall out, their jawbones and spines to decay, and worse. But it’s the denial and suppression that they met with when trying to sound the alarm that makes their story relevant here. Lydia Dean Pilcher and Ginny Mohler tell their story primarily as a courtroom drama but also look at how standing together was vital in order to give the whistleblowers a chance and protect other workers in similar situations.

Modern Times
Modern Times

Modern Times - Chili

It’s one of Charlie Chaplin’s most enduringly popular films, but on its release Modern Times saw the House Un-American Activity Committee accuse the little tramp of harbouring Communist sympathies because of its concern with the plight of the working man. He plays a worker in an anonymous factory who is ordered to test a giant machine designed to feed people on the production line so that they don’t need to take breaks. When he suffers a nervous breakdown and is subsequently arrested for getting caught up in a protest, he meets a young woman (played by Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s future wife) who joins him in his struggle to make it through an unfair world. Elaborate stunt sequences in a variety of working environments combine with Chaplin’s gift for comedy to make this endlessly entertaining.

Dolores
Dolores

Dolores - Amazon, Google Play, Apple TV

Peter Bratt’s documentary tells the story of Dolores Huerta, the founder of America’s first farm workers’ union, whose simple objection to the fact that the people on whom everyone else most depended – those who grew their food – led her to launch a series of strikes which earned her the enmity of people as powerful as Ronald Reagan. Although it was Cesar Chavez who the wider public would remember as the union’s champion, Huerta’s persistent activism and determination to raise the voices of ordinary people had a huge impact on US society. This detailed film explores the conflict she felt between being a leader and raising her 11 children, the impact of racism and the beliefs that inspired her efforts nonetheless.

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