Norma Rae contains one of the most iconic moments on film, and the lead actress, Sally Field, doesn't say a word. Instead, she hops on a table in a textile mill as machines clatter and whir around her and holds up a sign that says UNION. One by one, her co-workers shut down their machines in solidarity.
Norma Rae, for which Field received an Oscar, is one of the many thought-provoking and entertaining movies about workers: perfect viewing for Labor Day, which honors the contributions of workers in America.
Andre Braugher portrays another icon, A. Philip Randolph, in the inspiring and beautifully filmed 10,000 Black Men Named George, directed by Chicago native Robert Townsend (best known for The Hollywood Shuffle). A publisher, labor leader and civil rights activist, Randolph organized the first major African American labor union in 1925, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, rallying the porters with his insistence that “porters be treated like men. Free men. For that is what you are.”
The most powerful documentary about a strike remains Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA, in which miners and their families tell their story as it unfolds in 1973. The cameras are there for the picketing, the press conferences, the violence and the songs, one of which is the classic "Which Side Are You On?" hauntingly sung to a packed gymnasium of miners and their families by the 73-year-old miner’s wife who wrote it.
Finally, and on a much lighter note, I must include the comedy Office Space, written and directed by the creator of Beavis & Butthead. Though the humor is sometimes crass and the clothes and computers dated, the universal desire to take a baseball bat to a malfunctioning, paper-jamming copy machine remains, alas, timeless.
Happy Labor Day, and feel free to "punch in" with your own favorites!