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Celebrate Workers With These Movies About Strikes and Unions


Three images: Sally Field in 'Norma Rae' holding a sign above her head reading "STRIKE"; a young man and womna in matching pajamas from a 1950s musical; Christian Bale in Newsies, holding a stack of newspapers.

The history of strikes in film is long and varied, ranging from grim dramas detailing real events to comedies and musicals about the ridiculous hijinks of workplace politics. Here are 15 movies about the power of strikes and workers when they stand together.

Strike (1925)

Possibly one of the earliest and most important films about labor, Strike details a strike in pre-revolutionary Russia and includes some early forms of montage, linking the plight of workers to that of farm animals, a metaphor that would be later explored in media like Animal Farm. The film is in the public domain and can be watched on YouTube via the above link.

The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)

A bit of a more humorous movie where the plot is basically that of Undercover Boss: The “richest man in the world” goes undercover at his own department store to prevent his workers from unionizing, only to fall in love with a clerk and realize how poorly the workers are treated by management. The age difference and power imbalance of the main couple is disconcerting, but the scene of everyone lying to the cops to try and avoid getting fired or arrested is a bit of classic Hollywood comedy.

Wages of Fear (1953)

This movie falters a bit by focusing on the European main characters rather than the South American townspeople who are suffering, but it is a French film from 1953. The plot revolves around a group of men being paid by an American company to drive nitroglycerin to help put out an oil well fire, knowing that if anything happens to the trucks they drive, they will all die. The reason these random men get hired is because the union men can’t be forced to risk their lives for the company. This film only premiered in the US two years later, heavily edited from its original version, though it still was accused of being “anti-American.” (No duh.)

Salt of the Earth (1954)

A public domain film about Mexican American women from 1954? And it’s good?! I couldn’t believe it too, but it is. This film was so radical that it got denounced by the House of Representatives for “communist sympathies” and the FBI investigated the filmmakers, suspecting them of getting funding from communist backers. Which of course means I have to watch it now.

The Pajama Game (1957)

Another slightly more humorous take on a strike movie, this is the movie adaptation of a Broadway musical (which was adapted from a novel) about union workers demanding a raise of 7.5¢, only to later find out that they should have been getting a raise months ago but their boss was pocketing the difference.

The Organizer (1963)

This movie is a little grimmer than some of the others, highlighting how not every strike is successful and how oftentimes, an attempt to strike can result in police and military involvement, escalation, and death. Still, it’s worth a watch, highlighting the importance of continuing, even in the face of terrible odds.

Norma Rae (1979)

Partially based on the story of Crystal Lee Sutton, Norma Rae follows a textile factory worker as she and her coworkers unionize. The movie also gets into how companies would (as they still do) try to pit white and black workers against each other to undercut their collective power.

The Killing Floor (1984)

Not only is this a great film about the creation of interracial labor unions in the 1930s, but it was in production during the Air Traffic Controllers’ Strike of 1981 and was filmed in Chicago right after the city elected its first black mayor.

Newsies (1992)

A very historical revisionist movie, but it’s a fun one, retelling the real-life paper boy strike of 1899 as a musical with young Christian Bale. Also, it serves as a reminder that the man for which the Pulitzer Prize was named was not a good man. In fact, as a general rule of thumb, if something is named after a businessperson/“entrepreneur” then they probably did some shady stuff to fund that building/program/award. *cough* Rockefeller *cough*

Bread and Roses (2000)

This film retells the Justice for Janitors labor movement of the 1990s, with a special focus being given to undocumented and/or female workers especially. The title also pays tribute to the Lawrence Textile Strike or the “Bread and Roses” Strike with the title, highlighting that workers should be paid enough not only to survive, but to thrive and enjoy life.

Sorry to Bother You (2018)

A surrealist film about how capitalism supports and depends on racism (such as rewarding telemarketers for using a ‘white voice’ to talk with customers) and undercutting unions. It also goes into how even anti-capitalist protests can become appropriated and commodified by the larger system.

Other movies about workers

9 to 5 (1980)

Yes, Dolly Parton’s working-class anthem came from a movie—specifically a comedy about fantasizing about killing your awful boss, only to panic when you accidentally do it and spiral into highjinks and chaos. Kinda like Thelma and Louise but for the office. While the movie itself doesn’t feature any labor unions, Ellen Cassedy wrote a whole book about the labor movement of women office workers, which included discussions of the movie.

A Bug’s Life (1998)

“It’s not about food. It’s about keeping those ants in line.” The mantra of every CEO / strike breaker since the creation of organized labor. Money is a part of it, true, but it’s also about maintaining the status quo where a few individuals with power get to reap the benefits of others’ labor.

North Country (2005)

North Country is another film that highlights the issues women workers can face with their fellow workers demeaning or undervaluing them, if not outright harassing or assaulting them. Trigger warning, this movie does deal with sexual assault/rape. Charlize Theron gives an incredible performance, as usual, as a victim who sues her employer over workplace harassment, despite no other female miners joining her out of fear of losing their jobs.

Support the Girls (2018)

Another movie that’s not technically about strikes but still about workers who often get left behind—in this case, the staff at a “breastaurant.” Regina Hall plays an incredible-but-overworked manager who is trying to help her wait staff with all their personal problems while dealing with her own, eventually resulting in her and two of her girls getting fired for supporting each other.

(featured image: 20th Century Fox/Warner Bros/Disney)

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Kimberly Terasaki is a Creative Writing graduate, fanfiction author, and intersectional feminist. She liked Ahsoka Tano before it was cool, will fight you about Rey being a “Mary Sue,” and is a Kamala Khan stan. She appreciates all constructive criticism and genuine discussion.