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History of Labor Unions Movies & TV

Harlan County, USA (1976)

Barbara Kopple directed this documentary about a coal strike in 1970s Kentucky, and it should be at the top of your list. Gritty and heartbreaking by turns, it illustrates many of the conflicting currents of labor history while unfolding a tense drama. A shocker.

Norma Rae (1979)

Sally Fields plays a textile worker turned union organizer in this effective fictional account of a drive to unionize a plant. While the film bogs down in sentimentality at points, Fields's performance will not fail to stir you.

Matewan (1987)

A drama about union organizing, again in Kentucky, this time in the 1920s. With strong performances by Chris Cooper and James Earl Jones, the film looks particularly at the nuances of racial tension that surround the labor issue.

American Dream (1990)

Another offering from Barbara Kopple, this Academy Award-winning documentary details the unsuccessful strike of meatpackers against Hormel Foods in Austin, Minnesota during the mid-1980s. A scalding look how the labor movement faltered in the face of the Reagan-era onslaught.

On the Waterfront (1954)

A great movie that focused on union corruption even before it became a national issue. The movie does a good job of showing how labor leaders became divorced from the rank and file and used the union as a power base. Marlon Brando's Terry Molloy is one of the iconic characters in the history of cinema.

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