Sorry to Bother You and Why Pro-Union Movies Are So Rare

A crowd of striking workers
Workers protest in Sorry To Bother You. Screenshot, Annapurna Pictures, 2018

Sorry To Bother You was one of the most talked about movies of the summer, and now that it’s streaming on Hulu, among the most discussed of the year. Boots Riley’s science fiction comedy has been received as a breath of fresh air in a season when the country —  literally and figuratively — seems to be going up in smoke. It’s a movie full of surprises, but the biggest might be that it’s one of the few pro-union movies to achieve widespread success. Its heroes are union organizers, and the solution to worker exploitation is collective action. This is a very old idea; it’s been the basic premise of the labor movement for two hundred years. Yet it seems at home in a science fiction film placed in the near future.

Why is it that something as simple as a movie about a successful organizing campaign feels radical in 2018? The answer, I think, is that mainstream American film has a terrible track record when it comes to representing unions. In fact, despite its progressive reputation, Hollywood has a long history of abetting anti-labor forces.

For the most part movies have dealt with shifts and upheavals in labor by ignoring them. In the early to mid-20th century, despite being the peak years of American unionization, organized labor and collective action didn’t really fit with the story Hollywood was selling. In Hollywood, movies were — and still are — supposed to be driven by individual heroes who succeed or fail through a combination of self-will and personal magnetism. And the reward for success was personal wealth. Writing in the 1920s, Siegfried Kracauer suggested that this was doubly true for movies aimed at the working-classes. He wrote, “Indeed, the films made for the lower classes are even more bourgeois than those aimed at the finer audiences, precisely because they hint at subversive points of view without exploring them. Instead, they smuggle in a respectable way of thinking.”

From the studio era into the 21st century, when American film depicts organized labor we usually see three approaches: unions are ridiculous, unions were great in the past, but we don’t need them anymore, or unions are corrupt. Only very rarely — and usually in independent cinema — is the fourth possibility offered: unions are a way to for workers to empower themselves.

Unions are Ridiculous

Doris Day leads a picket line in Pajama Game. Not exactly pro-union movies
Doris Day as a singing grievance officer in The Pajama Game (Warner Bros 1957)

When big Hollywood studios took over the movie business, they were notoriously hierarchical and anti-labor. As a result, as political scientist Michael Rogin discussed in his essay “How the Working Class Saved Capitalism,” you almost never saw positive portrayals of contemporary unions onscreen. Even super-lefty Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) only nods to organizers and depicts them as an absurd, unruly mob. More typical though is the 1937 film Mannequin, a love story starring Joan Crawford and Spencer Tracy that sneaks a jab at organizing into the background. Tracy is a shipping magnate who bootstrapped himself out of the tenements. His employees — who are, like, totally fine. They have an awesome boss! —  get it into their fool heads to join a union just because it’s trendy. As a result, the business tanks and everyone loses their jobs. Incidentally, 1937 was the year the Wagner Act, guaranteeing the right to organize, was deemed legal in the supreme court. Studio heads were forced to negotiate, and Hollywood became a union town. But that could just be a coincidence.

The ultimate mid-century  “silly unions” film is probably The Pajama Game (1957), a giddy musical that doesn’t exactly make them look villainous — just goofy and overly bureaucratic. It isn’t really a film about labor so much a love story set amidst a campy send up of the absurdities of the American workplace.

Unions Are Great! …In the Past

By 1940, unions had become a fact of life in many sectors. There was corruption, yes. There was also racism and sexism. But it was undeniable that the quality of life among working people was improving. In fact, it was improving so much that nostalgia seemed like the safest and most appealing lens through which to view labor struggles. Rogin points out that in films like Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941), “John Ford and Darryl Zanuck made loss the condition for sympathy with labor.” In other words, these films were safe because they were about what was behind us as a nation (“the lost agrarian community”).

Of course, many filmmakers have used historical stories as a way to critique contemporary politics. The Depression-era Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory was released in 1976, during the twentieth century’s second great period of economic decline and unemployment. Reds, the story of John Reed’s involvement in — among other things — the IWW and the 1917 Russian Revolution, came out in 1981. That’s the same year our last septuagenarian B-movie-star MAGA president (or LeMAGA — Trump’s plagiarized slogan dropped Reagan’s “Let’s”) broke the air traffic controllers strike. He declared 12,000 workers in violation of the law and permanently weakened the power of workers to walk off the job.

These are undeniably “good” movies. They’re moving, inspiring, and generate opportunities to put our present in historical context. The trouble is, nostalgia keeps these stories at a safe distance. It’s too easy to watch them and think, “oh yes, but things were simpler then, and simpler solutions — like collective action — could actually work.” They also focus almost exclusively on men doing manly jobs. The independent film, Matewan (1987) about the 1920 Matewan coal miners’ strike is unusual in that it addresses racial tensions — and solidarity — within the union. But like the others it reinforces the distance between past and present, generating nostalgia for a time when manufacturing and other “men’s” jobs weren’t disappearing. And when, whether you were black or white, collars were blue, not pink. (I would love to see a slick Hollywood epic about the Uprising of the 20,000 or the ILGWU Chinatown garment workers’ strike of 1982.)

Unions Are Corrupt

Union boss Johnny Friendly slapping a man
Lee J Cobb as the quintessential corrupt union boss and Marlon Brando as the simple, too beautiful for words, conflicted dock worker, 1954

While historic and rural organizing can be romantic, heroic, or poignant, contemporary urban unions were depicted as hotbeds of violence and corruption. As labor historian Ken Margolies pointed out in 1981, “The most celebrated and best remembered film about unions is On the Waterfront (1954).” He continued, “On the Waterfront cannot be called an anti-labor film, but its chief contribution to…portrayals of unions is an indelible portrait of union corruption. Johnny Friendly (Lee J Cobb), the racketeer union boss of the waterfront, became a symbol of the labor leader.”  

Blue Collar from 1978 is a later example of this tradition. In it, Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel are auto-workers who discover union corruption and mob ties. They have to decide whether to report it or use it to get in on the cushy union leadership lifestyle. (F.I.S.T. — also 1978 — combines history and corruption, with a splash of Sylvester Stallone! It’s loosely based on Jimmy Hoffa’s mid-century leadership of the Teamsters Union. )

Through movies we learn that unions were maybe good once, but now they’re the cause of, rather than the solution to worker exploitation. They benefit union bosses who manipulate those below them.There have, of course, been instances when union leadership was corrupt. And (speaking as an organizer myself) union leadership can be really annoying and make decisions you don’t agree with. But it’s still a statistical fact that collective bargaining results in better pay, safer working conditions, and fewer disparities based on race and gender. And this is true not only for union members, but for all workers.

Unions Empower Workers

A group of women strikers on a hill. example of pro-union movies
Women keep the strike going in Salt of the Earth, 1954

You’re waiting for me to talk about Norma Rae, right? All this time, you’ve been thinking “but Norma Rae isn’t a period film, and it has a woman worker/activist for a hero!” And you’re right! Norma Rae (1979) does all of that. It’s not perfect — it left out the black women who were integral to the drive’s success — but it does show an example of how union organizing can actually work for workers.

Now, can you name another one?

Don’t feel bad if you can’t. There aren’t very many, and most of them aren’t well known. I can list my favorites on one hand.

My all time favorite is The Devil and Miss Jones. It’s a screwball comedy from 1941, and unless you’re a really big Jean Arthur fan, chances are you haven’t heard of it. (If you google it, be really sure you get the conjunction right. The Devil AND Miss Jones. AND.) Remarkably, given how much organizing was going on IRL, according to Michael Rogin Miss Jones was the only film from that era to positively portray a contemporary, urban union drive. More importantly, it was the only one to present union labor as the possible solution for our nation’s future.

The Salt of the Earth (1954) is the un-On the Waterfront. Where Waterfront director, Elia Kazan, named names for the House Un-American Activities Committee, Salt’s writer, director, and producer were all on Hollywood’s blacklist. The film also features an almost entirely Mexican-American cast, addresses sexist labor divisions, and foregrounds women’s roles in the movement. By comparison another favorite, The Garment Jungle (1957), is just ok, but it was released the same year as The Pajama Game and provides a more realistic contrast.

Born in Flames from 1983 has in common with Sorry to Bother You a futuristic, vaguely science fiction setting, and an intersectional perspective. It imagines a future in which a labor party has taken control of American politics, but continues to reproduce the same racist, misogynist, and homophobic structures as previous regimes. So a diverse coalition of women get together and …change things.

(Also notable are Bread and Roses (2000) and — okay, one hand a thumb — the Renee Zellweger rom-com New In Town (2009)…which isn’t exactly pro-union, but is surprisingly pro-worker.)

Sorry To Bother You and the Future of Stories About Labor

We live in an exceptionally dramatic time for American workers. The recent supreme court ruling overturning a 40-year precedent that allowed public unions to collect “fair-share” fees from workers who benefit from collective bargaining agreements is the latest hit in the systematic dismantling of organized labor by corporate interests. And yet we’re also experiencing renewed energy and interest in collective action, demonstrated most vividly by a wave of teachers’ strikes throughout 2018.  

Cloud 9 employees trying to decide if they're striking

Mainstream media on the other hand has made little progress in how it portrays workers. One popular example, the TV series Superstore, is notable in that it’s often actually about how low-wage service workers are stratified and dehumanized in a corporatocracy. But while it sort of almost maybe challenges the narrative that retail work is for temps, teens and losers, it also depicts attempts to organize as thwarted by workers’ adorable ineptitude.

Sorry to Bother You has problems, too. Tessa Thompson, as Detroit — the main character’s girlfriend — basically functions as an external (and often pantsless) conscience. More a sexy Jiminy Cricket, than a fully formed character. For me, some of the humor is a little too easy and — again, speaking as someone who has organized in the perma-temp economy — so is the organizing. But overall it’s a smart, funny, and important piece of moviemaking.

It’s important because it comes closer than any successful film in recent memory to depicting what the working class actually looks like. And as someone experiencing serious “Handmaid” fatigue, I’m so over cautionary dystopias. I think audiences are hungry for stories that imagine a future in which oppressive forces can be overcome, and not by way of a hero or savior, but through a bunch of different people working together; through giving up the trappings of personal wealth and success that Hollywood has been selling for over a century, and building something that benefits everyone.

Historically mainstream pro-union films have suffered from same gaps as unions. They’re hella white and privilege masculinity. But unions have been better than Hollywood at closing that gap.

Sorry To Bother You is an important film because representation matters. Movies are one way we decide what and who we care about, and this movie challenged viewers to care about the labor of low-wage people of color and the absurd contortions they have to go through to achieve a modicum of success in the current system. It’s a great start. Now, I’m waiting for the stories that go one better. The lowest paid workers in the U.S. are women of color. And the people reviving the labor movement are teachers and food service workers. If labor does have a future — that’s where we need to look. So let’s put them at the center of our stories.

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Sara Tatyana Bernstein
Sara is the co-founder of Dismantle Magazine. You can also find her writing on Longreads, LitHub, Hippocampus, Catapult, The Outline, Racked, BuzzFeed Reader, and more.