Archive for January, 2015

The Precariat in the Fields: Food Chains (2014)

Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films on January 24, 2015 by tzaniello

Every generation, it seems, must revisit the fields where migrant labor tolls to keep fresh strawberries and tomatoes on our tables. Edward R. Murrow is usually credited with the first expose of the “forgotten people,” as Murrow referred to them in his legendary television documentary in 1960, The Harvest of Shame. Murrow begins with footage of the almost exclusively black field workers boarding trucks to take them to the tomato fields in Immokalee, Florida. He quotes one farm owner: “We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them.”


In our generation this same task falls to director Sanjay Rawal whose 2014 documentary Food Chains begins, like Murrow, in Immokalee, following workers almost exclusively Latino on the busses to take them to the tomato fields, arriving for shape-up at 8 AM and returning home usually about 8 PM, having earned only $42. One of the workers says: “we live like animals in cramped houses,” often packing fifteen to sixteen people in a trailer during picking season.


But Rawal has a new topic besides the grim recitation of facts and expression of outrage characteristic of Murrow. The workers have formed the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who struggle on a number of fronts to double the income of the tomato pickers by asking the big three consumers—fast food restaurant, food services, and supermarkets to simply double the single penny earned for every tomato picked. This will have the effect, of course, of doubling the wages of the workers.


The film traces informational leafleting, marches, pickets, and even a major hunger strike as the strategic efforts of the CIW to move public opinion and embarrass the big three food consumers. In the end only company, the food chain Publix, refuses to support what came to be called the agreement called the Fair Food Program. Publix, the largest food chain and actually one of the richest corporations in any business, of course refuses to comment on camera.


Rawal’s film uses historical footage with great skill and effect. As I have mentioned, he uses some of the shots from The Harvest of Shame, but he also includes telling footage from Ethel and Bobby Kennedy’s visits to Cesar Chavez’s own hunger strike in 1968. Rawal films Ethel Kennedy and Robert Kennedy Junior as they visit the hunger strike of the CIW in 2013.


By my count Murrow’s film engendered at least three major broadcast TV specials on migrant workers within ten years of his CBS Reports film. But it took another thirty years when three more documentaries re-visited Murrow’s films and reported disappointedly , as in New Harvest, Old Shame (Frontline, 1990) “little has changed” for the now Latino migrant workers who travel from Florida to New Jersey for their picking opportunities.


So Rawal might not have the last word on the trials and tribulations of the migrant workers he films so respectfully, but it is at the very least a compelling and convincing word at this point, fifty-five years after his documentary mentor, Edward R. Murrow, filmed the migrant workers in the same town.

The Precariat: Two Cycles of Migrant Worker Documentaries—A Brief Guide

Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films on January 24, 2015 by tzaniello

Working people, their unions, labor issues in general, and political movements involving the working class have always been a part of Hollywood, independent, and foreign filmmaking. These films dramatize or document working people, labor activism, labor history, and related economic, political, and sociological issues.

The films have, however, resisted genre analysis because, first of all, they cross genre boundaries and, secondly, independent filmmakers have produced many labor documentaries that do lend themselves to genre study. Many of them, however, generated some distinctive film cycles. Here I want to focus on two cycles, one of the 1960s, the other 1990s, all of the films focusing on migrant labor.

The film that launched a film cycle of three major 1960s television documentaries about the hidden plight of migrant workers in the 1960s was one of the most influential investigative journalistic exposes of all time–Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame (1960). Murrow covered virtually every issue of importance to the mainly white migrant workers, although he even included the then relatively little-known bracero program, whereby the growers could import Mexican workers (who remained Mexican citizens) and pay them even less than the pitiful wages they were paying American workers.

Harvest of Shame is in part famous because it was not typical of TV reporting in a conformist era. Murrow was unusually forthright on political issues. Murrow’s juxtaposition of cattle trucks with strict safety rules and mistreated migrant laborers in rickety trucks is a famous example of his no-holds-barred style.

The TV documentaries that followed Murrow’s lead also use a strong voice-over narrator by a star or celebrity reporter (who may even be in the shots) and were always on the edge of muck-raking rather than simple reporting. By the end of the decade, however, exploited labor knew no color:

What Harvest for the Reaper? (1968), shown on NET [National Educational Television] Journal, focuses on just one of Murrow’s targets, a labor camp in Cutchogue, Long Island, that “would make slave life on the old Dixie plantation appear attractive” (Variety).

Hunger in America (1968), shown on CBS Reports, sent Charles Kuralt and others to focus on poverty among Mexican-Americans, Navajos, southern blacks, and white Virginia tenant farmers, the latter occupying the estates of Senator Everett Dirksen and the popular TV entertainer Arthur Godfrey.

Migrant (1970), shown on NBC, sent Chet Huntley out in the field to document how Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries (Snowcrop, Hi C, Minute Maid, and Tropicana) exploit Florida farm workers; Variety noted that the show’s sponsor, Coca-Cola, tried to “kill the exposé,” which was shown, in the end, without a single commercial.

A second film cycle was also generated by Murrow’s Harvest of Shame, even if thirty years had passed. In fact one of them, Hector Galan’s New Harvest, Old Shame (Frontline, 1990), demonstrates that “little has changed” for the now Latino migrant workers who travel from Florida to New Jersey for their picking opportunities.

Five years later, Dan Rather’s Legacy of Shame emphasized that laws were finally in place to protect migrant workers but “now the problem isn’t the laws, it’s their enforcement.” Rather chronicles both the highs—the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the lows—crew leaders and owners virtually treating their workers like indentured servants.

The subject of Children of the Harvest (1998), a NBC Dateline film, is obvious—gross violations of the law in regards to child labor, although the filmmaker has some sympathy for the families who feel they must send their children out to work in order for all of them to survive. The film ends with one farmer, disciplined by Heinz for using child labor, predicting that when children are kept out of the fields, Heinz will go out of the pickle business.

Although certain films from these three cycles have substantial reputations, most of the other films are not well-known and are sometimes seen as one-off or maverick productions. Keeping such films isolated from the cycles they are developed in obscures important relationships that have escaped film historians on occasion.

P.S. The last three documentaries, New Harvest Old Shame, Legacy of Shame, and Children of the Harvest, all have extensive discussions in my book, Working Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds and Riffraff: An Expanded Guide to Films about Labor (Cornell University Press).

I Witness (2003): The Precariat as the Threatened Class

Posted in Miscellany of (Relatively) Recent Important Films with tags on January 7, 2015 by tzaniello

Although perhaps no more brutal than the numerous films about the murders of “illegal aliens” slipping across the Mexican border to the USA or Mexican women kidnapped off the streets of Tijuana, I Witness (directed by Rowdy Herrington) has an even more generous range of corrupt and duped individuals than these other films.

The setting is an American-owned maquiladora undergoing a unionization drive. The company certainly doesn’t want the union, the local bent cops don’t want the union, and even American officials and middlemen don’t want the union, but at least for them it’s because it will cause too much trouble and maybe not even help the workers in the end.

Into this thicket of thieves and connivers strides James Rhodes, a human rights observer played by Jeff Bridges, who has been demoted because he duked a reporter complaining about the poor food at a Sudanese hotel during a famine.

Two sets of murders remain unsolved during this union struggle: two American boys shot while dirt-biking just across the border in Mexico and an entire village of compesinos—men, women, and children—found slaughtered in a collapsed tunnel. Viewers suspect how the two sets of murders are related almost before the protagonists but suffice it to say that the villagers were recruited to clean up a midnight spill of deadly methyl dioxide at the maquiladora, whose poisonous effects on them make them dangerous witnesses to the company’s reputation.

Jeff Bridges’ character does have some allies—an unbent cop who is nonetheless suspicious of gringo do-gooders, a local saintly priest, and an American bureaucrat Bridges would have had a romance with if this weren’t such a depressing film.

One wants not to be depressed in the end despite the number of deaths of innocent people including our heroes and the arrest of a really bent cop, but the web of shifting allegiances among the tough guys in this community, including even a mythical drug lord who is supposedly responsible for all bad things happening but who doesn’t really exist, makes the film’s coda especially difficult to take.

Nonetheless in the cinema of globalization this film should occupy a special but difficult place. The workers at the factory as well as the villagers epitomize the global labor force we now call the precariat, using the term popularized by British economist and writer Guy Standing, made up of temp workers seasonal workers, service industry workers, day laborers, immigrant and migrant workers, convict labor, the unorganized, the unemployed, the undocumented, etc.

That this labor force is global and threatened in even First World countries is the subject of what may be the only current play specifically named for the phenomenon—Chris Dunkley’s The Precariat (2013), performed in London. Macdonald workers as well the neighborhood drug sales force are all at risk in this drama of a dysfunctional working-class family that can only make ends meet by selling drugs or stealing.