Let’s continue on the journey of exploring the Labor History Collections films that are featured in the “For Liberty, Justice, and Equality: Unions Making History in America” exhibit! In part 1 of this blog series, we looked at Leading the Way: Black Trade Unions in South Africa, Pay Equality, To Dream, and Solidarity Day. All four of these films explored various events from history that correlate to the social justice topics that are discussed in the displays. Though the topics may be different, the films help viewers understand how social justice issues and the labor movement are intertwined and how historical events resonate today.
The film Toxic Earth explores the alliance between the labor and environmental justice movements. Today, environmental topics are always in the news and are being discussed in political debates. The ability to watch this discussion transform within the context of the labor movement can help us see how we have gotten to the point of the conversation we are in today.
“Today’s environment is the one we will earn and choose by organizing and working on the issues of occupational and environmental health. By demanding “Right To Know” laws, controls on acid rain, strict regulations, and enforcement of standards. The alternative is leaving life and death decisions in the hands of polluting corporations, relaying on lax and inadequate government supervision. Our greatest strength is in working together.”
Understanding how a conversation is started is vital to ensuring positive social changes. This is very important when it comes to damaging misconceptions about a community, such as the LGBTQ community and the AIDS epidemic. In the film Changing Attitudes: Union Members Talk about AIDS, union members were interviewed on the issues of workers with AIDS and how the unions need to fight to protect these individuals from discrimination in the workplace. These interviews show how the AIDS epidemic issues were intertwined with other workplace issues, such as healthcare benefits and discrimination. The labor movement has also fought against these concerns for so many other communities. Having these films to teach viewers how social issues are intertwined allows us to see patterns in discrimination cases and how we as a society need to fix them.
“This is not a moral judgement. This is a health crisis and it has resulted in rampant discrimination and prejudice against people. And it is no different than discrimination against women and discrimination against minorities and discrimination against sexual minorities. And these are all problems that the union has been in the forefront of.”
As one of the interviewers in Changing Attitudes: Union Members Talk about AIDS mentions, the labor movement has been actively involved in women workers issues. This topic is discussed in the 1984 film, Pay Equality, which we discussed in part 1 of the blog series. To further showcase how the labor movement has been directly involved in women worker issues the labor exhibit team included another film from 1984, CLUW: The First Decade. The Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) was founded in 1975 with four goals in mind: organize the unorganized, promote affirmative action, have more women participate in their union, and increase women’s presence in political activities. Since this group is a coalition, its members are made up of various labor unions, which helps unify and amplify the voices of female members. This film showcases another aspect of the labor movement that was not explored in the Pay Equality film: even within the labor movement itself, communities have banded together to support one another to correct workplace issues.
“Now 3,200 trade unionists have come to Chicago. Some by bus, some by train, and some by plane. And I think that has a message. You can tell them that we didn’t come here to swap recipes.” – Olga M. Madar
All seven films that we have looked at so far bring to life how impactful the labor movement has been in a variety of social justice issues. As we saw with the film Leading the Way: Black Trade Unions in South Africa, the labor movement will lend its hand to workers around the world. Another example of this is the 1985 film Solidarność. In 1980, the anti-communist trade union movement Solidarność (Solidarity) was founded in Poland. The union was led by Lech Walesa who organized the Gdansk shipyard strike, which caused many other industries to strike throughout the country. During these strikes, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) gave its support by sending supplies to the workers. This demonstration was incredibly successful and on August 31, 1980, the Polish government signed the Gdansk Agreement, which gave Polish workers the right to strike and to organize independent unions.
“Rights. Basic universal human rights. Never in history have workers in a totalitarian state won so much.”
Watching the Solidarność film, the viewer can feel how meaningful this movement was for the workers of Poland and with the support from the AFL-CIO they were able to win basic human rights. Having a way to see the people and communities involved allows you to connect with them and their struggles. These labor history films and their digitization give visitors of the labor exhibit the chance to thoroughly explore the labor movements’ involvement in social justice issues and understand how these issues resonate today.
Erin Berry is a Graduate Assistant for the Labor History Collection at University of Maryland Special Collections and University Archives. She is pursuing a Masters of Library and Information Science with a concentration in Archives and Digital Curation and expects to graduate in 2018.