Episode 164: Labor Union Depictions in Hollywood (Part I): From Demonized to Ignored or Mafia Plot…

Citations Needed | July 27, 2022 | Transcript

Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront (1954). (Columbia Pictures)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Nima: Chances are you’ve seen this storyline play out on either a big or small screen: An FBI agent investigates a prominent labor leader. Or maybe a union boss orders a hit on a recalcitrant member of the rank and file. Or perhaps a union president skims money off a pension fund to make an illegal loan.

Adam: Plotlines like these derive from one of Hollywood’s longstanding and most favored tropes: the corrupt, mobbed up union, and more specifically, the corrupt union boss. It lends itself to countless stories: The rise and fall of a Mafia-backed labor head, the rebellion of rank-and-file workers against their tyrannical leadership, the precarious union on the verge of implosion. Accordingly, over and over again, we’ve seen stories of labor unions entangled with extortion, bribery, blackmail, theft and murder.

Nima: But, even if union bosses can make compelling characters, why is it that they must be corrupt mafiosi? Why is it that heroism in pop culture is overwhelmingly the domain of police, attorneys and doctors and hardly ever people fighting for labor rights and the collective power of their co-workers and communities? Why, instead of highlighting the courage of labor organizers and the life-changing protections won, must Hollywood repeatedly emphasize only unions’ historical ties to organized crime and a seamy underbelly of corruption, murder and intrigue?

Adam: On today’s show, part one of a two-part episode on labor depictions in Hollywood, we’ll explore organized labor and unions in film and television, and how these pop depictions inform broader public sentiment about unions. And next week, we’ll discuss some of the more positive portrayals of labor and unionism in film and TV.

Nima: Later today, we’ll be joined by writer and organizer Ken Margolies. Ken has spent his life in the US labor movement, starting as a member of the Teamsters in NY and continuing with director positions with SEIU, CWA and the Teamsters. He worked for nearly 30 years for the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, providing training, consulting and advice to a wide range of unions.

[Begin Clip]

Ken Margolies: Besides the mob theme, there was an ineffectual theme that was in the news all the time in the ’60s, ’70s. It was all about auto workers making too much so that the companies can’t compete with Japanese made autos, steel workers were demanding too much so they got laid off, plants were closing. So that was coexisting with the mobbed-up image that they did.

[End Clip]

Nima: And on next week’s show, we’ll speak with Angela Allan, a lecturer on history and literature at Harvard University, who writes about pop culture for The Atlantic magazine.

[Begin Clip]

Angela Allan: From a narrative standpoint, there’s something sexier and more profitable storyline for a couple of heroic, exceptional individuals to really fight back in these very spectacular ways. They’re action-packed, they lack the kind of more quiet drama of having conversations with people making those connections in order to be able to organize into a union.

[End Clip]

Adam: Disclaimers, we typically do. Well, two disclaimers, number one, there’s going to be a lot of spoilers in this because as we talk about movies and to some extent television. Many of these movies are 50, 60, 70, 80 years old, some are over 100 years old.

Nima: Yeah, so spoiler alert for On the Waterfront but maybe go see On the Waterfront.

Adam: Yeah, there’s no longer an actual waterfront anymore. But sorry about that. Number two, obviously, we’re going to be talking about the depictions of organized labor and the Italian mafia being chief among them. Now, we, of course, are not saying that there were not a lot of connections between organized labor and the Italian mafia, in case there’s any confusion. Obviously, that was a major problem for many, many decades, and the courageous efforts of the progressive union activists within the unions to get rid of the mafia element, if you will, is of course its own story worthy of telling, and we wanted to clarify that because we were talking offline, is everyone was going to think that we’re like sponsored by the Italian mob now? No, that is not the central focus of this. But of course, the history of organized labor in the United States and throughout the world, but the United States in particular, is only a fraction of that really has anything to do with organized crime, and we are going to spend a great deal of time talking about why that 10 percent becomes the exclusive focus, for the most part, with rare exceptions we’ll talk about, and the other 90 percent is ignored almost entirely.

Nima: Also, quick note that we can’t possibly talk about everything that we want to talk about, we would love to do an entire episode on the second season of The Wire, but we can’t cover everything. So we have selected a few films that are emblematic of larger trends, and we will do some honorable mentions as we go, but apologies if your favorite pro- or anti-union film is not discussed today.

But let’s get on with it. Hollywood power structures have a long history of anti-labor maneuvering, dating all the way back to the earliest days of Hollywood unions. Much of the foundation upon which Hollywood is based is rooted in anti-unionism — including one of Hollywood’s hallmarks, the Academy Awards. In 1926, producer Louis B. Mayer, then the head of the newly formed studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer or MGM, hired some of MGM’s construction workers to build his Santa Monica beach house, expecting the work to be done in just six weeks. The studios were about to sign an agreement with the union representing studio laborers, soon to be known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or what is now known as IATSE. Fearing the potential now for construction workers to secure good pay and overtime, Mayer opted to pare down the studio workers and outsource the rest to cheaper labor.

But Mayer still feared that unionization could spread throughout Hollywood, with writers, actors, and directors taking cues from carpenters, electricians, and painters. He and his colleagues thus devised a plan to both serve as a PR vehicle for the entertainment industry and to quell any labor agitation. Now first they formed a trade group, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to prevent Hollywood creatives from unionizing. Second, they dangled vaguely prestigious awards in front of their Hollywood talent in hopes of distracting them from pursuing better worker conditions. This, of course, marked the dawn of the Academy Awards, the first ceremony of which was held in May of 1929. Louis B. Mayer stated, quote:

I found that the best way to handle [filmmakers] was to hang medals all over them. If I got them cups and awards, they’d kill themselves to produce what I wanted. That’s why the Academy Award was created.

End quote.

Now, much to Mayer’s chagrin, creative unions throughout the entertainment industry began to gain a foothold in the 1930s, building on the successes of craftspeople and seeking to improve working conditions in response to the Great Depression and related exploitation by film studios that were gaining power. The Screen Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild became official in 1933, while the Directors Guild of America was founded three years later in 1936. The Screen Writers Guild would become the Writers Guild of America, or WGA, in 1954, and the Screen Actors Guild, SAG, would merge later with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, AFTRA, forming SAG-AFTRA much later in 2012.

Adam: And with unions’ rising power grew studios’ — and governments’ — rising antagonism to this power. In 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act was passed, limiting the power and activities of labor unions. At that time, the Cold War and its attendant Red Scare were escalating, and studio heads like Walt Disney sought to leverage the anticommunist climate to smear organized labor, which was, of course, undermining his bottom line. In 1947, Disney testified in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee against “suspected” communists in the industry. Here’s an excerpt from Disney’s testimony in front of HUAC. For some context, Disney animators went on a five-week strike in 1941 to pursue unionization. So in this clip, Walt Disney is asked if he believes that the unions and Hollywood have been taken over by communists.

[Begin Clip]

Walt Disney: I don’t believe it’s a political party I believe it’s an un-American thing, and the thing that that I resent the most is that they are able to get into these unions, take them over and represent to the world that a group of people that are in my plant that I know are good 100 percent Americans have been trapped by this group, and they represented to the world as supporting all of those ideologies and it’s not so and I feel that they really ought to be smoked out and shown up for what they are so that all the good free causes in this country all the liberalism’s that really are American can go out without this taint of communism. That’s my sincere feelings on it.

[End Clip]

Adam: In 1947, the year Taft-Hartley passed, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed 41 screenwriters, producers, and directors quote-unquote “suspected” of being communists — some of the information came from a column authored by Hollywood Reporter owner William R. Wilkerson. Ten refused to testify, becoming known as the Hollywood Ten, and kicking off the era of the Hollywood blacklist.

Walt Disney testifies before the House un-American Activities Committee, 1947.

Characterizations of unions in film, from the early 20th century on, reflected this disdain of unions from Hollywood’s top brass. Now, while the rank and file and the writers and the workers and many of the actors of course were lefties, and many of them were in fact communists, that is true. The ones actually calling the shots and green lighting projects, by definition, were not. So oftentimes more left-wing messages, socially progressive, antiracist, you name it, those messages oftentimes had to be kind of shrouded in more liberal framing or done cryptically or done through analogy or metaphor.

Nima: Now, while certainly not singularly anti-union, labor-centric films from the pre-WWI period through the subsequent decades often portrayed labor leaders as “outside agitators” — a trope long used to discredit political movements and one kind of echoed in that Disney clip, right? — it’s that these real Americans are being influenced by these outside groups or by the communist infiltrators. Now, obviously the infiltrators, you know, impulsively and selfishly provoked strikes unrelated to any legitimate American labor grievances. Now, as historian Ken Margolies, our guest on today’s show, wrote in 1981, quote:

The agitator was presented in a variety of ways, but all of them negative. In Pete Wants a Job, made in 1910…the labor leader is portrayed as an opportunistic loser who fails at every job he tries until he leads a strike. In The Agitator from 1912, the troublemaker is a ranch foreman who comes back from a vacation in the city infected with crazy ideas. He uses whiskey to persuade the other cowboys to strike and demand that the ranch owner divide his wealth.

End quote.

Adam: So we’re going to read a synopsis about 1912, The Agitator from the Moving Picture World magazine, which was a trade magazine at the time. So unfortunately, the film could not be found, but we do have a synopsis of it, quote:

While the foreman is absent in the city, with a train load of cattle, the ranch owner, finding himself short of men, employs a new hand. Young and extremely handsome, with a fine personality, Jack Williams makes quite an impression on the ranch owner’s daughters, and he is himself attracted to the elder sister. During his absence the foreman becomes inflamed with socialistic ideas by attending socialistic gatherings and listening to impassioned speeches by hot-headed men. He returns to the ranch with his head full of socialism and finds that the new ranch hand has made great headway with the ranch owner’s daughter, whom he had hoped to win himself. He attempts to force his attentions on her, but finds them unwelcome, and when he carries it to the point of rudeness her father interferes, thereby gaining his foreman’s enmity. In order to retaliate for his suffered grievance he stirs up the cowboys with whiskey and talk gleaned from socialistic meetings. Under his leadership the boys are ready to fight and in this dangerous mood the foreman leads a delegation to the ranchman with a demand that he divide his wealth equally among them.

So, unionization was used as a plot device typically of radical hotheads, foreigners, et cetera.

Nima: Yeah. Now, in the silent short The Strike, which came out two years later in 1914, the union organizer character is a thug who blows up the plant in which he works thereby ruining the whole town when the company relocates. So it’s the union’s fault that the company moves to a different town.

Adam: So the Los Angeles Times publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, was a very right-wing, very anti-union, very anti-anarchist, anti-socialist publication, and Los Angeles was one of the few large cities that had absolutely no union activity whatsoever at all, and largely with the help of the Los Angeles Times, which was a mouthpiece of the rich and the city. Some important context to know is that on October 10, 1910, the McNamara brothers, James and John McNamara, were convicted, they denied it, but I think it’s consensus at this point that they had bombed the Los Angeles Times building killing 21 people and injuring over 100. They did it overnight without realizing that there are people still working there. And famously, Clarence Darrow was their lawyer. They ended up pleading guilty. So this is the context with which Hollywood has a very early relationship with unions and unionization.

Nima: Yeah, just ask Upton Sinclair. So by the 1950s, Ken Margulies argues, depictions of union leadership shifted away from this “outside agitator” archetype and toward that of the “union boss.” Again, Margolies writes this, quote:

As unions became legally recognized and more established, the union leader was portrayed as just another boss, abusing the union’s dues and giving orders to the members instead of representing their interests.

End quote.

So we’re actually going to take three movies as examples of this anti-unionism in Hollywood: 1954’s On the Waterfront, 1978’s Blue Collar, and the 2019 film The Irishman. Each of these films includes themes mentioned earlier, portraying unions as mobbed-up vehicles of corruption, their bosses savage egomaniacs with ties to the mob. Each movie is, at least to an extent, based on real events. That’s the thing, right? Indeed, some unions — the Teamsters, the International Longshoremen’s Association, the Laborers Union, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union — do have historic connections to and in some cases been infiltrated by the mob, right? We know this, and as Adam, you mentioned earlier, not trying to say that isn’t necessarily the case, but the issue, as we’ve said, isn’t necessarily just one of accuracy; it’s one of emphasis. The films we’ll explore all focus on organized crime, dysfunction, and power plays in unions, rather than on the actual organizing and meaningful gains that are achieved by unions. Furthermore, on the whole, these films ignore the history of mafia infiltration of unions, which started in the 1910s and ’20s as employers hired mobsters to break strikes — though in some cases these strikes were conducted by white workers protesting the hiring of underpaid immigrants. This all laid the groundwork for organized crime to start to permeate and exert control over unions. Now, of course, the film’s don’t focus on any of that, but they tell the stories that are going to cast the unions usually in the worst light possible.

Adam: Nor does Hollywood by and large focus on the mob infiltration of police, which was far, far greater than that of unions. But police are not associated with mob infiltration as unions are.

Nima: So let’s start with On the Waterfront from 1954, Directed by Elia Kazan. Now, On the Waterfront tells the story of Hoboken longshoreman and former prizefighter Terry Malloy played famously by Marlon Brando. Malloy works loyally for mob boss Johnny Friendly, played by Lee J. Cobb, the head of the dockworkers’ union. Malloy abets and witnesses the murder of a longshoreman, Joey Doyle, who was rumored to be planning to testify against Friendly in an investigation of mob control of the docks. After much hesitation, Malloy eventually breaks his fealty to Friendly. Allying with Doyle’s sister Edie, played by Eva Marie Saint, who also won an Oscar for her performance, the local priest Father Barry, played by Karl Malden, Malloy musters the courage to testify, exposing the union’s rampant corruption.

Now, notably, Elia Kazan, the director, testified in front of HUAC, naming names of suspected communists. On the Waterfront, as many have observed, was made in part to justify Kazan’s actions in front of HUAC, which occurred in 1952, just two years before the film’s release. The film’s screenwriter, Budd Schulberg, who was a former member of Communist Party USA, also testified to save his own reputation, naming people in the process.

On the Waterfront was a smash with moviegoers, critics and the Academy alike when it was released; it was nominated for 12 Oscars and won eight, including Best Actor for Marlon Brando, Best Screenplay for Schulberg, Director for Kazan and Best Picture of the year. It is hailed to this day as a cinematic masterpiece and one of the greatest American movies of all time. Brando’s Terry Malloy is routinely named one of, if not the greatest screen performances ever.

So here are some examples from the film of this kind of anti-union sentiment, the way that unions are presented. In this first clip, we see Johnny Friendly, again Lee J. Cobb, explaining the necessity of having Joey Doyle killed in order to preserve control of the docks.

[Begin On the Waterfront Clip]

Johnny Friendly: You know, Taking over this local took a little doing. There were rough fellas in the way. They gave me this to remember them by.

Charley: He had to keep his hand over his throat to stay alive and he still went after them.

Johnny Friendly: I know what’s eating you. I got two thousand dues-paying members in this local, that’s 72 thousand a year legitimate. And when each one of them puts in a couple of bucks a day just to make sure the work’s steady, well, figure it out. That’s just for openers. We’ve got the fattest piers and the fattest harbor in the world. Everything moves in and out, we take our cut.

Charley: Why shouldn’t we? If we can get it, we’re entitled to it.

Johnny Friendly: You don’t suppose I can afford to be boxed out of a deal like this, do you? A deal I sweated and bled for, on account of one lousy little cheese-eater, that Doyle bum, who thinks he can go squeal to the crime commission. Do you?

[End On the Waterfront Clip]

Adam: Later a priest, Father Barry, invites the dockworkers to meet without fear of Friendly at his church. At the meeting, Father Barry asks who killed Joey Doyle, and no one answers.

[Begin On the Waterfront Clip]

Father Barry: Hey, Dugan, Dugan, how about you? Are you?

Dugan: One thing you have to understand, Father, on the dock we’ve always been D and D.

Father Barry: D and D? What’s that?

Dugan: Deaf and dumb. No matter how much we hate the torpedoes, we don’t rat.

Father Barry: Rat? Now boys, get smart. I know you’re getting pushed around, but there’s one thing we’ve got in this country, and that’s ways of fighting back. Getting the facts to the public. Testifying for what you know is right against what you know is wrong. Now, what’s ratting to them is telling the truth for you. Now, can’t you see that? Can’t you see that? Huh?

[End On the Waterfront Clip]

Nima: Later in the film, Terry is subpoenaed and doesn’t want to participate. But after a series of further murders clearly organized by the union leadership, he vows to get revenge against union boss Johnny Friendly. In this clip, Father Barry tells Terry not to kill Friendly, but rather again, to do the right thing and just testify.

[Begin On the Waterfront Clip]

Terry Malloy: Now what am I going to do?

Father Barry: You want to be brave?

Terry Malloy: And it’s none of your business!

Father Barry: You want to be a brave man by firing lead into another man?

Terry Malloy: It’s none of your business! Why don’t you mind your own business!

Father Barry: Firing lead into another man’s flesh isn’t being brave!

Terry Malloy: It’s none of your business!

Father Barry: Do you want to hurt Johnny Friendly? Huh? Do you want to hurt him? Want to fix him? Do you really want to finish him?

Terry Malloy: What do you think?

Father Barry: For what he did to Charley and a dozen other men who are better than Charley? Now don’t fight him like a hoodlum down here in the jungle because that’s just what he wants. He’ll hit you in the head and plead self-defense. You’ll fight him in the courtroom tomorrow with the truth. As you knew the truth. [Music] Now you get rid of that gun. Unless you haven’t got the guts, and if you haven’t, you better hold onto it.

[End On the Waterfront Clip]

Nima: Eventually, union leaders are probed and revealed to be super corrupt, Terry testifies against Friendly, and becomes a pariah, basically stared at blankly by the D and D rank-and-file of the union, and shut out of his job, and then there’s the climax of the film, which if you haven’t seen it, you should go see it. But obviously there is a hero’s journey, where Terry triumphantly is able to get back to work and do the important labor. But we have shown that the union is what is corrupt and dangerous.

Now, back to Director Elia Kazan. On the Waterfront is really an allegorical defense, many have written, of Kazan’s HUAC testimony. As multiple authors have argued, Terry Malloy, the character in the film, his willingness to defy Friendly and do what’s right is meant to parallel Kazan’s own testimony in front of Congress, for which Kazan remained unrepentant throughout his life and career. In Kazan’s mind, apparently, communists were just as threatening and domineering as mob bosses. Author Victor S. Navasky argues in his 1980 book Naming Names that On the Waterfront, quote, “makes the definitive case for the HUAC informer or at least is … a valiant attempt to complicate the public perception of the issue,” end quote. Los Angeles Times business columnist, Michael Hiltzik, has called On the Waterfront, quote, “Kazan’s ultimate effort to justify his informing,” end quote.

Elia Kazan (second from left) holds his Best Director Oscar for On the Waterfront, 1955.

Now, On the Waterfront isn’t necessarily an anti-labor film, right? It doesn’t depict the rank-and-file as corrupt — though it does suggest they’re spineless up until the climax of the film — and the film’s voice of conscience, Father Barry, played by Karl Malden, speaks in defense of dockworkers’ rights and unionization, and distinguishes the leadership of the dockworkers’ local from that of the labor movement in general. But the themes of corruption overshadow any pro-labor sentiment that the film does offer. As Ken Margolies, our guest today, has written the film’s, quote, “chief contribution to…portrayals of unions is an indelible portrait of union corruption. Johnny Friendly, the racketeer union boss of the waterfront, became a symbol of the labor leader.” End quote.

Adam: Next up is 1978’s Blue Collar, written by Paul Schrader, who’s famous for Taxi Driver and weird Facebook posts, among other film accomplishments. The synopsis of the film is fed up with their bureaucratic and negligent union and in need of fast cash, Detroit auto workers Zeke Brown, played by Richard Pryor, Jerry Bartowski, played by Harvey Keitel, and Smokey James, played by Yaphet Kotto, decide to steal the funds from the union. Initially disappointed with the amount, they’re surprised to learn that they made off with the union’s ledger, which is rife with proof of illegal loans and other links to organized crime. They use the ledger to blackmail the union, only to be forced to quote-unquote “look the other way” or be attacked by its leadership.

In the movie, Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey are approached by John Burrows, who claims he’s a college instructor who’s writing a thesis on union corruption. Smokey thinks he’s an FBI agent conducting a federal investigation. Burrows approaches Jerry separately later, specifically asking about the shop steward, Clarence Hill, and union corruption. Let’s listen to that clip here.

[Begin Blue Collar Clip]

Burrows: Yeah, well, you know, Clarence Hill, don’t you?

Jerry: I mean, you were his key man before he was promoted to shop steward.

Burrows: I heard he just bought a big house on Woodland Hills.

Jerry: I don’t know nothing about that.

Burrows: Come on. Come on.

Jerry: I know nothing about house. Nothing about no Clarence Hill. Nothing about no union. I don’t know shit.

Burrows: Well, everybody knows your local’s the most corrupt in the city.

Jerry: Yeah?

Burrows: Yeah.

Jerry: I also know that you got your man inside the union and the union’s got its man inside the government and if I farted upwind I’d be out of a job in an hour, wouldn’t I?

Burrows: Yeah but you seem to me like a guy —

Jerry: I ain’t talking to no government agent.

[End Blue Collar Clip]

Adam: Later, as money the troubles and their resentment of the union mount, Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey start hatching a scheme to break into the local.

[Begin Blue Collar Clip]

Smokey: Be like we was takin’ what belonged to us anyway, huh?

Zeke: How many night guards they got?

Jerry: I don’t know.

Zeke: What do you think, huh?

Jerry: Nah, I couldn’t do it.

Smokey: Somebody oughta show ’em a lesson. They treat us worse than the company does.

Jerry: There ain’t no way to do it but I’d sure like to see the look on their faces.

[End Blue Collar Clip]

Adam: Eventually, the union leaders discover who committed the robbery, and one of said leaders, Eddie, hires two men to break into Jerry’s house. Smokey catches on and thwarts their plan. Meanwhile, Zeke is promoted to leadership in exchange for the ledger, taking Clarence Hill’s job, and is assured that he, Jerry, and Smokey will be protected. Smokey is later killed in a quote-unquote “accident” on the job; the connection to Eddie is implicit. Zeke confronts Eddie about Smokey’s death, and Eddie tells him he’ll simply have to “look the other way” whenever the union commits murder, bribery, or other illegal activity, especially if he wants to keep his new job as a Black man.

[Begin Blue Collar Clip]

Eddie: Blacks got jobs because guys like me knew when to stand up and when to look the other way.

[End Blue Collar Clip]

From left: Yaphet Kotto, Richard Pryor, and Harvey Keitel in Blue Collar (1978). (Universal Pictures)

Adam: The movie ends with Zeke and Jerry embittered and divided, each viewing the other as a sellout. This sense of nihilism pervades the film, culminating in the message that unions have outlasted their usefulness, degenerating into just another weapon of surveillance and control of the American worker, which is reflective of Schrader’s politics when he discusses the film.

In a 1978 interview he gave about Blue Collar, Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the film, states that he sought to portray unions as another boss, tantamount to employers in terms of their corruption and oppression, because apparently, that’s the way people view unions. He was asked the question, “When you first decided to do a film on Detroit auto workers, what did you want to say with the film?” He said, quote:

I didn’t set out to make a left-wing film. I had no visions of making this into a concrete political thing; it had to operate in the area of entertainment. I wanted to write a movie about some guys who rip off their union because it seemed to me such a wonderfully self-hating kind of act, that they would attack the organization that’s supposed to help them. It’s so symptomatic of the way that workers think about the organizations that surround them. You know, in their minds, and in the minds of a lot of people in this country, the union, the company and the government are synonymous. They have different logos but they’re essentially the same thing.

So this idea that the company and the union are part of some nebulous system that oppresses them kind of flattens these differences is very much reflected in the film itself, which is good in many ways, like a lot of these movies are — again, it’s not that the movies are bad — but it contributed to this increased kind of proto-Reagan belief that unions were not only corrupt and inefficient, but had outlasted their usefulness and were no longer necessary.

Nima: Also, as Eithne Quinn, author of A Piece of the Action: Race and Labor in Post–Civil Rights Hollywood, has revealed in her own research, the Black story-creator of the film Blue Collar, a man named Sydney Glass, has alleged to have had his idea stolen by writer-director Paul Schrader. Quinn writes that, quote:

Glass was finally granted his story credit only after he mounted a challenge against Paul and his co-writer brother Leonard, backed by the Black caucus of the Writers Guild of America. The brothers relented only because ‘the guy had a gun to my head,’ as Schrader put it.

End quote.

Now Schrader was a longtime collaborator with filmmaker Martin Scorsese. So it seems fitting that we should now transition to a Scorsese film. We’re going to talk about the 2019 film The Irishman. The basic synopsis of the film is this, in 1950s Pennsylvania, truck driver and WWII veteran Frank Sheeran, played by Robert De Niro, becomes entangled with the Bufalino crime family after his lawyer, Bill Bufalino, played by Ray Romano, introduces Frank to his cousin, Russell Bufalino, played by Joe Pesci. Russell takes a shine to Frank, noting Frank’s ability to take out enemy soldiers during his time in the military. After Frank’s first kill, he begins to ascend the ranks to become a top hitman for the mob. Now, Russell offers Frank a job with Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino, for whom Frank begins to serve as a bodyguard and confidante. Frank eventually becomes president of a Teamsters local, all the while becoming enmeshed in the illicit power plays among the union’s top brass.

The Irishman is based on Charles Brandt’s 2004 book, I Heard You Paint Houses, which chronicles the life of Frank Sheeran. Quote-unquote “painting houses” is a euphemism for killing people, and the title is, by Sheeran’s own account, a quote from Jimmy Hoffa, who Sheeran claims said this to him during their first conversation. Let’s listen to this clip from The Irishman. This is Frank as he grows closer to Jimmy Hoffa. In the clip we’re about to listen to Frank’s daughter Peggy is giving a presentation in her school class about Hoffa and the Teamsters interspersed with scenes of backroom deals about the Teamsters own Las Vegas developments.

[Begin The Irishman Clip]

Peggy: “​​If you have it, a truck brought it to you.” This is what Mr. Hoffa says. He’s the president of the Teamsters Union with over a million members. They all support him because they have steady jobs, great pay and a pension for when they retire.

Frank: The Teamster Pension Fund had eight million dollars in it, and Jimmy had complete control over every bit of it.

Jake Gottlieb: Isn’t this a beautiful presentation? I mean, a bridge loan is really all I’m asking, Jimmy.

Jimmy Hoffa: I’m not gonna piss away my members’ pension dough on something too risky.

Jake Gottlieb: This is not a risk, Jimmy. I got Minsky’s Follies. I got the first topless act on the Strip. I’m telling you, we’re booming in there, I can’t get the drinks out… Just asking for a golf course. You know you never lost a dime with me.

Bill Bufalino: Jimmy, we’d really just appreciate whatever you could do to help Jake along here.

Jake Gottlieb: One-five is all I need for a completion bond.

Jimmy Hoffa: Okay. Okay. Go to the bank.

[End The Irishman Clip]

Adam: So while the movie is called The Irishman it’s, of course, primarily about Jimmy Hoffa, Jimmy Hoffa is the main focal point. He was the head of the Teamsters for several decades. There’s been several Jimmy Hoffa films made, notably among them the 1990s film Hoffa with Armand Assante. So of course, mafia stories are Scorsese’s bread and butter. Nima and I are both big Scorsese fans, so we’re not trying to disparage Scorsese. We love his mob movies. I especially love Casino.

Nima: I love bread and butter.

Adam: Right. But this, of course, contributes to a broader popular narrative that the extent to which we get any union stories, with notable exceptions, they are almost always mafia stories and stories involving the mafia. Now, one could say, Nima, that mob stories are inherently interesting, and while that’s true, I think that’s a little bit of a cop-out because stories of unionization, of David versus Goliath, of the small worker versus the big boss, can and very often have been interesting. Many directors and writers have made them interesting without resorting to mob crime tropes. So it’s not as if there is some law of nature that says every representation of a union has to be mobbed up, because again, the police historically have been just as mobbed up and you see only a fraction of police stories involving the mafia, chief among them, Serpico and others. So, I think this is part of a sort of broader trend, of course, because I remember, I think the original germ of this episode was when I was watching The Irishman when it first came out three years ago, and I remember thinking that it really sucks that this is the only representation we ever really get of unions. This is your sort of average person’s, this is how they interact and interface with the concept of unions, and this is not, of course, Martin Scorsese’s fault, it’s not any one discrete party’s fault. But put together it is part of a broader cultural pattern where this is how people engage with and understand unionization in this country that created, as President Joe Brandon says, created the middle class, assured the middle class, won the middle class, and it is almost always viewed as being a mechanism of theft and murder and bribery and corruption.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to be joined by writer and organizer Ken Margolies. Ken has spent his life in the US labor movement, starting as a member of the Teamsters in NY and continuing with director positions with SEIU, CWA and the Teamsters. He worked for nearly 30 years for the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, providing training, consulting and advice to a wide range of unions. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by writer and organizer Ken Margolies, an avid film buff. Great to have you on the show today Ken Margolies. Thanks for joining us.

Ken Margolies: My pleasure.

Adam: So yeah, you’ve been observing the depictions of labor for some time now, having written about it in your 1981 essay, “Silverscreen Tarnishes Unions.” Obviously much has changed since then, that was 40 years ago, over 40 years ago, and of course, much has not changed. So I want to sort of set the table for our listeners, as we try to do on the show, by talking about some of the kind of broad strokes of Hollywood’s relationship with labor as an ideological subject. I specifically want to maybe begin the conversation by talking about the impact of McCarthyism in the ’50s on how Hollywood as a kind of industry engages this topic, Hollywood itself is incredibly unionized in many ways, actors, trades people, less so with the kind of Hallmark-ification of Hollywood as of late, but generally speaking, the people there are oftentimes very lefty, especially back in the ’50s and ’60s, and are themselves in unions. But this is, of course, not really reflected necessarily in the output. So I want to sort of start in broad strokes about what you feel like Hollywood’s relationship with labor was in the quote-unquote “golden age” of the ’40s and ’50s and how McCarthyism’s impact affected that course.

Ken Margolies

Ken Margolies: Well, of course, many writers are blacklisted, and some of them wrote some things under someone else’s name to try to get things out there. I mean, I think one of the big examples is The Grapes of Wrath, which won an Academy Award and the studio had, I forgot what studio made it, I think it might have been Mayer, said, ‘You want to send a message, go to Western Union,’ and originally he told the writer, ‘Who wants to read about a bunch of Okies, who wants to watch a movie about a bunch of Okies?’ But, you know, it ended up winning the Academy Award, good writing, good acting stars, and the question is, did it really make an impact on how people felt about workers and about how they’re treated? And perhaps people in cities looked at it and said, ‘Oh, those poor farm workers out there, that’s too bad,’ but maybe didn’t see it as relevant to them.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, the idea that a big John Ford movie, right, I think it was produced by Darryl Zanuck, starring Henry Ford, and you have, you know, Tom Joad, the legendary character in both literature and film. Yeah, I’d love to kind of talk about how that sort of character driven plot line maybe brought labor and unions, the idea of unions into the more mainstream American consciousness. I mean, I would say probably most of the people going to see the films were actually in unions or members of their family where, but it wasn’t really depicted that way up until that point, and also, of course, you know, the very next year, John Ford does, How Green Was My Valley, which has its own labor through lines, but in a, you know, kind of different thematic elements to it, and this is all kind of coming off of, you know, I mean, as you’ve written, Ken, about the silent film era, and how unions and labor movements were depicted throughout. I’d love for you to kind of talk about maybe what shifted from the kind of silence into the say, John Ford made films, in terms of depicting unions as things, you know, maybe initially as unions equal striking workers in industry, and then how that may be shifted as films shifted themselves.

Ken Margolies: The silent films tended to be shorter and simpler, of course, the plot wasn’t ever really that will developed, and so there was a whole spate of them that I wrote about in that article, where some agitator convinces a bunch of good workers to strike or take some sabotage, and then they acknowledged they have some legitimate issues, and then lo and behold, the owner’s son sees the light, marries the heroine from the workers, and everybody’s happy.

Adam: Right.

Nima: Oh right. Just like real life.

Ken Margolies: That was one scenario. The other is that, you know, they blow everything up. There was a, I think it was Disney, it’s an animated film called Little Red Henski, and it’s about a communist hen who tries to get the farm animals organized and it just ends up with everything blowing up. There’s, I think, the classic cartoon of a bomb, you know, round thing with a fuse on it.

Adam: Yeah. So, I want to talk a bit about that real quick, because one thing we discussed earlier was the sanitization of union politics to the extent to which unions are depicted very often their radicalism is watered down, both currently and historically. They’re kind of vaguely nonideological, they’re usually loyal patriots. In even a movie like Newsies, which is sort of surprising in its pro union propaganda for kind of a Disney musical in the early ’90s, I’m not sure how it snuck through the cracks, but even that, at the end the hero is Teddy Roosevelt. There’s always this gravitation back to the sort of patriotic narrative. I want to talk about, from your observations and what you’ve written, the defanging of unionism as a kind of, for want of a better expression, it’s a Costco membership for steel workers. It’s sort of a passive thing you’re part of, but it’s not necessarily violently hostile to the interests of capital or industrialists.

Ken Margolies: So it went from radicals, bombers, people who overturn things, and then in the ’40s, one of the reasons why a film like Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley may have been more acceptable was there was a huge unionization in the ’40s. After World War Two factories were just going left and right union with hardly any resistance. Franklin Roosevelt said, ‘If I was a factory worker, I’d vote union.’ And so huge upsurge of unions, and it was probably the most density that unions have ever had. So the reaction then became switching from they’re a whole bunch of radicals to they’re a bunch of gangsters.

Adam: Right.

Ken Margolies: And, unfortunately, were gangsters in the labor movement, and so by focusing on that, they kind of started eroding the positive image of unions, and then I think it evolved into mostly just ignoring them like they’re not really a topic that has much substance to make a movie about. So unions were not on TV much, they were not in movies much, and it was rare. We can name the ones where there was some mention of them, because they are so rare.

Adam: Right. You mentioned the mafia being the primary lens with which unions are discussed in cinema, TV and film. That is something that we talked a great deal about. Now, as we mentioned, there are probably pretty good reasons for that. Number one the mob is sexy, people like mob stories, obviously the mob is going to be more interesting than some boring committee meeting between union reps. But secondly, I do think it is kind of a, it became a kind of convention, it became a trope, where the only way we can understand, you know, even a television show like Abbott Elementary discusses unions in Philadelphia, and I was like, oh, cool, a union plot that eventually degenerated into a gag about a sort of ethnically stereotypical Italian talking about being in the mob, not the sort of criticize or singled out that show, it’s a trope. To the extent to which I think it’s fair to say when public sentiment against unions began to shift in ’70s and ’80s, that there was a broader cultural assumption that well, unions are basically just nothing but mob types, and this of course, was reinforced by films, mafia films, Scorsese films, as much as Nima and I love those movies, they’re obviously reinforcing that.

Nima: But I mean, Hoffa and The Irishman, you know.

Adam: Right, right, right. And again, it’s not as if there were not a lot of mobbed-up unions. I mean, the Teamsters being chief among them.

Nima: TV shows like The Wire did the same thing.

Ken Margolies: Right. Besides the mob theme, there was an ineffectual theme that was in the news all the time in the ’60s, ’70s. It was all about auto workers making too much so that the companies can’t compete with Japanese made autos, steel workers were demanding too much so they got laid off, plants were closing. So that was coexisting with the mobbed-up image that they did.

Nima: Yeah. Along with this life-to-screen depiction of unions and how they kind of evolved from this agitator trope to the useless trope or the lay about trope to the mafia trope, are there other stereotypical depictions of unions that, you know, you’ve seen in our entertainment media that you think are just really critical to talk about and as a corollary to that, where are those molds broken? Where do you see those cracks kind of emerging?

Ken Margolies: Well, Norma Rae was by far the best change after all that other, even with some exceptions of unions that showed in films or TV that showed unions in a good light. On the ineffectual side, there is a movie that I love, but I don’t like that I love it, called, I’m All Right, Jack. It’s a British movie and it’s hilarious but it plays off that unions are there to make employers hire people who don’t work and things like that. So there’s this one scene where the union leader goes into the shop and there’s this group of workers that are playing cards, these are workers whose job was phased out, but the employer has to still pay them. So they come to work every day and play cards. The union guy comes in and says, ‘Brothers don’t you know there is a strike on? You have to walk out,’ and you know, they have this reaction, like, ‘Oh, no, we’re not going to break any strikes,’ meanwhile they were doing no work. So it was a joke about, you know, padding the payroll and inefficiencies and things like that. But it’s so funny, I liked it. But, you know, I didn’t like that I liked it, because it’s a bad message.

Nima: Well, it has a really good cast. I mean, you have Peter Sellers and Richard Attenborough, and Terry-Thomas, incidentally.

Ken Margolies: Now Richard Attenborough, in another movie, he’s a scab, he’s a strikebreaker.

Adam: The Angry Silence.

Ken Margolies: Right. And the whole movie is sympathetic to him as the one guy in this whole plant who decides, ‘I’m going to work regardless.’

Adam: A noble scab.

Ken Margolies: Yeah, the others are sheep and mean and nasty, and he has a family and he’s doing what’s right and all the good things. Now, the other movie, you know, we didn’t mention yet, but we talked about mobbed up movies, the probably the king, the winner by far of all of them, is On the Waterfront.

Nima: Sure.

Ken Margolies: It’s another movie I like a lot, but there’s things about it that bother me. So first was Elia Kazan was one of the people in Hollywood who named the names, outed people for being communist in Hollywood, and most of the reviews at the time when the movie came out were saying he made that movie to make being a rat respectable. So, you know, at the end, Marlon Brando goes against the mob, the union testifies in a way that gets them kicked out, and he’s the hero, and then all the workers will, you know, rally behind him. So it showed worker strength, they said, ‘We don’t go to work unless he goes to work,’ and he’s all beat up and he staggers in and they all follow him. It’s a very inspiring scene. So you got all these mixed messages there. So you got the mobbed-up thing, you got the individual as opposed to collective is really what it’s all about, and then you got being a rat can be okay, depending on who you’re ratting out.

Nima: Oh, totally. I mean, I love that you brought up On the Waterfront, you know, you can’t talk about labor in films without talking about On the Waterfront, but I think that’s such an important distinction to make that it’s, there is worker solidarity or human solidarity, but shown explicitly outside of a union framework, right? So Lee J. Cobb’s a villain, Karl Malden, who signifies, you know, faith, you can have your faith, you can have your patriotism, you can have your solidarity with your community, with your neighbor, with your friend, but don’t do it under the auspices of a union, which is seen as corrupt, and an alternative to that. That then is seen as sinister.

Ken Margolies: Yeah, and you know, I’ve watched that movie so many times. When I did the article, I went to the Library of Congress, I was living in Washington, D.C., and they let you take films on a viewing machine, and so I would, you know, view certain scenes over and over, and I noted in the article that they had this little crumb that they threw to unionism, Karl Malden says, “No good union would ever let this happen.” So that was the only thing that said, this is the exception, this is not what unions are. But no one’s going to remember that if they even heard it when it happened.

Nima: Right.

Ken Margolies: In fact, I don’t know how many people would remember that unions were a big part of that movie. I mean, it’s all the taxi scene, “I coulda been a contender.”

Adam: Yeah, because it seems like the broader architecture was that the Red Scare scared the shit out of so many people in Hollywood, for understandable reasons, that the approach to unions from there on, with obvious exceptions, but rare exceptions, was to just not really talk about it. It’s almost less so that it’s anti-union as much as it’s they live in a world without unions, which, even though, you know, at least for me, personally, and something we’ve talked about at the top of the show quite a bit is that unionization lends itself very much to drama. It’s a story of underdogs versus the big guy. It’s a story of, and people say, ‘Oh, well, they were all mobbed up.’ It’s like, well, the police were more mobbed up than anyone for decades, and yet we still have a million pro police stories. So, clearly, that’s not the real reason, right? There was a sense that if we touch this, we’re going get painted as red, or we’re going to be painted as subversive, and you know, there’s a thousand more stories about brilliant, genius, entrepreneurs as these great tales, because it sort of lends itself to like a save the rec center plot where you sort of have to get together to save your job, and it’s just interesting when you watch —

Nima: The gung-ho model.

Adam: Yeah, something that’s such a ripe topic for heroism, and for stories about underdogs, you basically, you know, the amount of examples we can list I can do on both hands, and that strikes me as kind of, I guess, in many ways that was sort of the point of McCarthyism, that they were viewed as being, that Hollywood was too left-wing, it was too Jewish, it was too subversive, it was too Black, and we had to just scare the shit out of everybody so they’ll give us the kind of vanilla centrist Democrat line.

Ken Margolies: The other is the studios are a big business that had to deal with unions themselves, and even though at times, they had relatively peaceful labor relations, the key thing about Hollywood unions, that I should have figured it out, but I didn’t know until I did some, met some of the people in those unions to talk about their history, the stars got on the union train, and that’s what gave them their power, and so, you know, the Humphrey Bogarts, and people said, unless you sign a contract that protects mostly the not-star actors, or the up-and-comers, because the stars didn’t really need it, they had agents and they got great compensation and that’s kind of true with the writers. I don’t know so much about the directors. I’ve done a lot of work with the IATSE, which is stagehands, camera people, sound people, et cetera. What keeps individual Locals strong is when the best of the craft are pro-union, and often they get elected off to be officers, you know, so you got, you know, a three-time Academy Award winning sound engineer, and he’s saying, ‘I’m with the union.’ Well, other sound engineers who hope to win Academy Awards listen to that, and it makes you much stronger.

Adam: And I know that a lot of the reason for that is that actors make demands about union labor because it’s safer, it’s more professional, it’s more predictable, you know, what I mean? It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.

Ken Margolies: Well, you know, the death on the site, Alec Baldwin’s situation, there were rules against that that should have prevented that. I don’t know all the ins and outs of who did what wrong, but certainly unions try to prevent things like that, and you know, and then less dramatic accidents, like just people falling off ladders or walking off a stage or getting sick from mist, things like that. That was a big thing for a lot of musicians on Broadway, was they would put smoke on the stage and it would settle down in the pit and they would start getting respiratory illness.

Adam: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.

Ken Margolies: Yeah.

Adam: Makes sense, though.

Ken Margolies: Yeah.

Adam: I was always curious if that was inert because I did a post-apocalyptic Antigone in high school and I swear to God, I was sick by the end of that production.

Nima: It was just all dry ice and the lungs.

Adam: Well, yeah, every hacky high school director has to mask the horrible high school acting with a bunch of smog, and the lack of sets. Anyway.

Ken Margolies: I wanted to mention a couple of films. So equally good to know, but not as much recognition is Bread and Roses. So that was about the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles, and it had Adrien Brody, who was in this before he won his Academy Award. So then this, I think, came out after he was an award winner so that helped get it out there more. But it’s just a really excellent film, shows what it’s like to try to unionize. Lots of drama, romance, so really a good film. The other film that I really liked, but it doesn’t necessarily give a great view of unions, is Pride. So a British film, it’s about miners are on strike, they’re losing their strike, kind of radical gay man who’s active in radical politics, as well as gay politics, decides they’re going to help the miners and they start bringing in the money and other support, and the real drama of the movie is the miners need the help, but they’re kind of uncomfortable, and so what you see in the movie is how they finally accept the help, and they’re in solidarity with the gay rights people. But it just, again, sort of shows the union people, except for a few enlightened ones, as kind of crude, backward, you know, Archie Bunkers. But it’s just a great, great film.

Pilar Padilla and Adrien Brody in Bread and Roses (2000).

Nima: Well, Bread and Roses, you know, is directed by Ken Loach, and he’s a British filmmaker and has made a number of, you know, pro-labor films. Yeah, I mean, but I wonder, Ken, you know, before we let you go, have you seen a distinction between American films and British films in depicting labor, you know, you were mentioning, I’m All Right, Jack, right? So that’s a British film, with a British cast, Richard Attenborough, Peter Sellers, just as much as On the Waterfront is Elia Kazan, Hollywood, Marlon Brando, right? So, do you find that there is a distinction in the way that maybe those two filmmaking hubs, the US and the UK, view labor films or is it really just kind of a united front?

Ken Margolies: I think there’s a difference. I think, in general, in Britain, there’s much more class consciousness in the arts. In the US, it’s more complicated because of race and ethnicity and other divisions. But in England, I think for so long, I mean, they are very diverse now, but for so long, there was a real clear division between the working class and upper classes, and I think that a lot of times the storylines have that and the unions sort of come along, incidentally. So there’s the series on Netflix, which is Last Tango in Halifax, and very incidental to everything else that goes on in the series, is that the male star talks about how he’s always concerned about workers, and then you find out he was in a union, and he’s got a pension from his union, and he often says things like, ‘These people should be in a union.’ But you know, those go by pretty fleetingly and only people like me notice it.

Adam: Yeah, it’s largely incidental, you know, the union participation and even the threat of unionization is such a central key fact of so many people’s lives. I mean, I know it’s not the 35 percent, whatever number it was back in the day, but still, you know, 10, 15 percent, and yet it’s almost just not an issue. I mean, again, it’s doctors, lawyers and cops, and that’s kind of the way it is, and it’s a conspicuous absence, indeed.

Ken Margolies: And, you know, and a lot of what the creative media does reflects what the news media does, and right now there’s some interesting things happening. So the public view of unions is at its most positive ever now. Amazon unionizing is in the news. Starbucks unionizing is in the news. A lot of media companies, you know, like more independent web-based media companies and reporting are starting to unionize, and so there might be a movie there that we might get to see.

Nima: That’s right.

Ken Margolies: And, you know, certainly I think there would be interest. I mean, the Amazon situation on Staten Island in New York, the head of that effort was someone probably, you know, until this happened wasn’t known, and in fact, there were leaks from the company, they didn’t think he was smart enough to win. So I think part of why they did win is they underestimated him and they didn’t want to make more of it than there was by reacting and that was a mistake on their part. But I would say he’d make a great character in a movie.

Adam: Yeah, that’s right.

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: I think that story would absolutely make a great character. I don’t think it’ll be produced by Amazon Studios.

Nima: Or they’ll try to do that —

Adam: Or they’ll do it.

Ken Margolies: Well, you know, they’ll make it so that they try to bargain and the company comes up with some great idea and says, ‘Now, give up this silly union idea,’ and the workers say, ‘That makes sense.’

Nima: ‘We’ll give you Prime for life,’ and they’re like, ‘All right.’

Ken Margolies: Yeah. Right. I’m going to mention one more movie, where I have one of those conflicts, again, is Blue Collar. So when I saw it, I was in my 20s and I love the blues opening and I love the acting and Richard Pryor and I just was really so taken by that, I sort of forgot about or accepted that it was about corruption in the union, and in this case, corruption in the union that was known for being very, very clean: auto workers.

Adam: Yeah. Paul Schrader, you know, he made, he has a history of making fairly right-wing movies, but I think he’s just so good at it nobody really minds.

Ken Margolies: He doesn’t like unions. That’s very clear.

Adam: Yeah.

Ken Margolies: You know, he has to deal with them when he makes movies.

Nima: Right. I know. It’s true. It’s like the super right-wing films, but then you’re like, yeah, but it’s Taxi Driver. So it’s great.

Ken Margolies: Yeah. And it’s like, Clint Eastwood makes great films. I hate him, but I like his films.

Nima: Exactly. No, I think that’s part of why we love discussing this, right? It’s not about saying, hey, that’s why this art is so effective, that’s why, you know, it’s not about just hating on it, it’s about understanding kind of what’s animating it and how wonderful art can still have bad politics. I love so much art with bad politics. (Laughs.) I’m going to sign off of this interview and go watch, you know, True Lies again. But before we let you go, Ken, this has been so great, but in addition to your film analysis and the work that you’ve done in unions, you’ve long worked at the Worker Institute at Cornell, and are also an author. Is there anything that you have out recently that folks can check out?

Ken Margolies: Yes, one of the things that union leaders told us that the workers needed help on is being managers of the staff of the union, and so I started a workshop series with my colleagues on that subject, and then years later, I wrote the book Managing with Labor’s Values, and it’s going to be out, published by the Labor’s Bookstore, which is online, all run together, laborsbookstore.com, and that will be out really soon. I had it posted online on the Worker Institute website. So it’s still up there now. So somebody who’s listening wants to check it out, you can go to the Worker Institute, and then search for my name, and you should get a link to the book.

Nima: Well, that is fantastic. This has been so great. We’ve been speaking with writer and organizer Ken Margolies. Ken has spent his life in the US labor movement, starting as a member of the Teamsters in New York City and continuing with director positions at unions like SEIU, CWA and the Teamsters as well. He worked for nearly 30 years for the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, providing training, consulting and advice to a wide range of unions. Ken Margolies, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Ken Margolies: I loved it. Thanks.


Adam: Yeah, I think it’s a testament to the lack of labor in Hollywood, the fact that he wrote an essay that’s three years older than I am.

Nima: Yeah.

Adam: And it doesn’t actually need to be updated that much.

Nima: No, it is pretty spot on. It was written a couple years after Norma Rae came out in 1979. He comments on that, and yeah, in the intervening 40 years, Adam, very little has changed. It needs not even much of an addendum.

Adam: Yeah, it’s not every day we have a guest on where we asked him about the piece they wrote 40 years ago, but we did it here because honestly that’s most of the foundation and it’s probably 80, 85 percent of the relevant discourse. So, you know, that really just shows you how rare it is outside of a mafia context. But next week, we’re going to do something I’m very excited about, which is we’re going to talk about positive depictions of labor.

Nima: That’s right.

Adam: Not perfect, but generally positive depictions of labor in Hollywood films that have done what we consider to be a good job or a job that was pro-labor in sentiment, the rare examples that do exist, we’re excited to get into those and talk about what makes them work.

Nima: Yeah, so absolutely stay tuned for that episode, which is going to come out next week and will be our final episode of the season, this fifth season of Citations Needed. But until then, thank you all so much, again, for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout-out goes to our Critic-level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, July 27, 2022.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.