Monday, December 11, 2006

American Dream

Like I mentioned in my previous post, I stayed up late last night watching the documentary American Dream, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1991. I don't even remember how I heard about it, but as soon as I heard the subject matter, I knew that I needed to see it. The movie was about labor unions - more specifically a local labor union in Austin, Minnesota and how it went toe-to-toe with Hormel, a large meatpacker and the people that gave us Spam.

The year is 1984 and Hormel has a record profit that year. How does it respond? It cuts the wages of the workers at the Austin plant from $10.69 an hour to $8.25 an hour. Needless to say, this doesn't go over well with the local union. What follows is lots of footage of labor negotiations, the labor union bringing in a bigwig from New York City to help them in their cause, and ultimately, a strike that drags on for months and months.

It's important to keep a film like this in historical perspective. Labor unions have always had, up until just about that point, enjoyed a huge amount of leverage and power. In many ways, this was a good thing - a large group of people that don't have a whole lot of power individually forming a large group that can exert huge amounts of control and influence. By the mid-80s, the influence of labor unions had waned considerably. And this is on full display in this film. The national union wants the local union to accept a compromise, and they flatly refuse to do it. And with that refusal, goes the last little bit of bargaining power they had.

As I watched the documentary, I could see both sides of the coin so clearly. I could see why the workers were pissed. I mean, why cut wages when profits were at a record high? But in many respects, the workers themselves are the ones to blame for their predicament, which ultimately ends in a lot of them being out of work. By flatly refusing to compromise, the executive board of the local P-9 union effectively sold out its members, giving up their bargaining power, giving the company no reason to negotiate with them.

It was hard to watch at times - I've never been a union man, so the dedication that a lot of these men and women show to the union, even in spite of hunger and financial ruin is remarkable. Many speak of not being able to cross the picket line because they come from a long line of union workers. The anger and hatred that the strikers had for the "scabs" that crossed the picket line was very real and palpable. But I couldn't blame the ones that decided to put their families ahead of the union. It wasn't an easy choice for any of them. One man's brother virtually disowned him for crossing the picket line - that's how deep the issue went for so many of them.

I love seeing the history of those times - late 20th century history fascinates me. As I've detailed countless times before, I find it a complete travesty that our high school students know more about Charlemagne than they do about Richard Nixon. I realize that teaching recent history is difficult, as the proper amount of time has not passed to give it the clarity that is frequently needed to teach it objectively. But that doesn't mean that history teachers get a free pass and should get to glance over recent history - for these are the times we can learn the most from. One need not look any further than the growing parallels between the Vietnam War and the Iraq War to see a prime example.

So I highly recommend American Dream - especially if you're as into late 20th century history as I am. There's also a short film on the DVD in the bonus features called Children of the Night which is about children that died in the Holocaust. And talk about depressing - it is perhaps some of the most powerful 17 minutes I've ever watched.

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