During the last presidential Republican primary, Rick Santorum spoke glowingly of his grandfather’s “big hands,” which he got from working as a coal miner. Not to be outdone, Mitt Romney’s wife, Ann, talked about her coal-miner grandfather. In a previous election, Joe Biden didn’t have his own coal-miner grandfather, so he borrowed Neil Kinnock’s, though he soon had to give him back. And so it appears that a politician just loves having a coal miner in his family, though I doubt if he would want his daughter to marry one.
Presumably, these millionaires that run for president need some way of proving that they are essentially just like us, and they trot out their coal-mining ancestry to show that they have not forgotten where they came from. Their wealth notwithstanding, they are working class, same as us, and thus have our interests at heart. Of course, it doesn’t have to be coal mining. During the Republican National Convention, we heard speech after speech by politicians trying to establish their blue-collar bona fides, with tales of hard work and tough times. While few of them could boast of having a coal miner in their family, they managed to find reasonable working-class substitutes. Soon they may start hiring genealogists for this purpose.
Even God saw the good in it, which explains why Jesus’ stepfather was a carpenter. God knew what he was doing when he made sure Mary would end up getting married to someone who worked with his hands, rather than to a money lender or tax collector. God wasn’t worried about his son getting elected, of course, but he knew that a working-class background would go a long way in establishing his son’s moral worth, a point not lost on modern politicians. In other words, in addition to showing that they are just like us, politicians try to establish a connection with certain kinds of work as evidence of virtues like integrity, trustworthiness, courage, and even piety.
In Coal Miner’s Daughter, Loretta Lynn sings about the way her father loved his children, and the way her mother read the Bible every night. Undoubtedly, there are also coal miners who get drunk, beat their wives, and screw their daughters, same as might be found in the general population, but we are persuaded of the purifying effects of hard work, and thus are predisposed to embrace her idealized portrayal of a coal-mining family. In The Razor’s Edge (1946), Larry Darrell is on an existential quest, precipitated by his experiences during the Great War. He turns down a job as a stockbroker and goes to work in a coal mine instead. He says that while he works with his hands, his mind is free to think about other things, like the meaning of life. In How Green Was My Valley (1941), Roddy McDowall plays Huw, the youngest child in a coal-mining family. He is given a good education, with the opportunity to pursue a professional career, but he chooses to go to work in the coal mines instead, notwithstanding all the misery and mistreatment suffered by his father and older brothers. He does not explicitly state his reason for doing so, but we get the impression that he goes down into the mines as a matter of pride, as if to prove that he is just as good as the other men in his family.
In fact, if the industrial revolution had taken place two thousand years ago, I am sure that God would have seen to it that Mary had a coal miner for a husband instead. But carpentry was good enough, as is any job where you either produce some basic good, as in coal mining, or you make or repair something, as in carpentry. In Office Space (1999), a man who hates his soul-crushing job sitting at a computer in a claustrophobic cubicle finally achieves peace and contentment doing construction work in the open air. And farming always has the aura of spiritual purity, as in Easy Rider (1969), where a bunch of hippies work the land rather than sell out by working for the government or big business.
When it comes to honoring the worker, there is no difference between liberals and conservatives. But when those same workers band together and form a union, the difference becomes profound. It would be a gross oversimplification to say that conservatives invariably despise unions, while liberals wholeheartedly adore them, but there is no doubt that unions tend to find support on the left of the political spectrum, and opposition on the right. As a result, there are movies about unions reflecting each of these attitudes. As an example on the left, we have Norma Rae (1979), in which the company is the villain, and the union formed by the workers is an unqualified force for good. As an example on the right, we have On the Waterfront (1954), in which the union is so corrupt that the union boss and his henchmen are the villains, not the shipping companies that need the longshoremen to load and unload their ships. Rather, the union boss and his men exploit both the shipping companies and the workers.
Because there are probably more leftwing, pro-union movies than rightwing, anti-union movies, it might seem that the nation is more favorably disposed to unions than not. However, I have noticed that since 1980, all the pro-union movies are set before that date, while recent anti-union movies are set contemporaneously. This suggests that the left must look nostalgically back to the past, while the right can make its case in the present.
For example, Matewan (1987) and Made in Dagenham (2010) are pro-union movies, based on actual events that occurred before 1980: the early 1920s for the former; 1968 for the latter. On the other hand, Waiting for “Superman” (2010) is an anti-union documentary concerning the decline in education in America, depicting events that have occurred quite recently. The film places the blame for all our educational ills on the American Federation of Teachers, which stands in the way of progress by insisting on tenure, a position I have criticized elsewhere and will not repeat here.
This is a new kind of worker in a union movie, one who does not work with his or her hands, and certainly does no physically demanding labor. The workers, that is, the teachers, are associated with children, however, and the teachers benefit from that association. As all politicians know, having children is even more important for political success than having a coal-miner grandfather. Bill Clinton, except when he had to address his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, never gave a speech in which he did not refer to children. And Jesus certainly cashed in on this association, insisting that his disciples allow the children to come to him. Today, it would be called a photo op. The downside of such association, however, is that much evil befalls those who are accused of harming children, as is the case with those who belong to the teachers’ union. Since the union is depicted as failing the children out of a selfish concern for tenure, the unionized teacher becomes the scourge of our education system.
As an exercise, try to imagine a movie set in the present that portrays the teachers’ union in a favorable light. In general, public employees’ unions suffer from the same fate: no one has ever made a mainstream movie that presents them in a positive manner. Whatever the merits of the case, leftwing, pro-union movies about civil servants do not exist.
Returning, then, to the kind of work traditionally found in a union movie, we have North Country (2005). The story begins in the year 1989, and it is about a woman who tries to make a living working in an iron mine. This would seem to be a liberal-slanted movie, inasmuch as it is a feminist film about sexual harassment. But the animosity toward Charlize Theron’s character is for the most part shared by both labor and management. The union members, who are mostly men, are cruel and obscene in the way they treat the few women who work there. So while the movie is liberal in its feminist stance, it is conservative in the negative way it portrays the union and its members.
The television show The Wire, which is set in this century, featured a corrupt longshoremen’s union in the second season, so technically that makes it rightwing in its negative attitude toward unions. But then, everyone in that show was corrupt, including the good guys, so maybe we should not try to make too much of that. Still, the union does not come off looking very good.
To sum up, every movie or television show involving unions that is set in a period of time after 1980 presents unions negatively. All the movies that are pro-union, regardless of when they were made, are set before 1980, as if they must occur in a remote, mythological past in order for us to see the union as good. The fact that no one is willing or able to make a pro-union movie set in contemporary times is an ominous indicator of public sentiment.