Workers of the World Unite!
On "Matewan" (1987), "Norma Rae" (1979), and "Silkwood" (1983)
New Books Network 2021
Continuing the theme of social revolution, this episode looks at cinematic depictions of the struggle for basic workers' rights and tolerable conditions. History is rarely the story of uninterrupted progress, and that goes for unionization and safety. Our three films were produced within a decade of each other, 1979 to 1987, when labor faced immense struggles in the face of the Reagan Revolution. Not only did Reagan fracture the normally reliable Democratic coalition of voters, peeling off many blue collar workers, his administration slashed and burned decades of meaningful worker protections in basically every industry. We start with John Sayles’ Matewan (1987), a film about the infamous 1920 coal miners strike in West Virginia. Next is Norma Rae (1979), Martin Ritt’s film starring Sally Field and based on a true story of a North Carolina textile worker who pushes for unionization. And then a darker story, Silkwood (1983), about Karen Silkwood, the nuclear power whistle blower and union activist who died under mysterious circumstances in 1979.