Last week I got a call from a reporter at The Guardian asking me to weigh in on the newest anti-union salvo from the Target corporation: a creepy, personal, direct-to-camera attack on unions, delivered by two red polo-shirt wearing Target “team members” (were these actually SAG member actors?) who talked in a chatty and informal way about how unions would destroy the “open door” policies, flexibility, and pleasant working environment already enjoyed by every Target employee. This new Target video has already drawn considerable attention, earning media reports in Salon and Gawker to name a few.
This Target video got me thinking: what is the role of cultural artifacts—art, film, and music—in contributing to attitudes about labor? How do cultural objects impact individual union drives, and how does anti-union propaganda impact wider culture attitudes about labor?
I am a professor of a literature and a cultural historian, so I am inclined to think that culture is powerful, and that anti-union culture has played a role in the decline of union membership we are all suffering from today. At the same time I wonder how much of the decline of unionization is more the result of labor policies and law—especially anti-labor laws passed by state and federal governing bodies because of the powerful lobbying by the wealthiest oligarchs in the land?
We often think that anti-union sentiment peaked in the 1950s, when McCarthyism was in full bloom, unions were purging their radicals, and labor/management cooperation was all the rage. But Nelson Lichtenstein assures us that for the last hundred years and more that the union has been portrayed as boss, bully, and thug.
Here’s a political cartoon from 1914 that implies that AFL demands were violently military and aimed at the very heart of American democracy.
But during the Depression, there was in upsurge in popular cultural support for labor—what Michael Denning has called the Cultural Front. The 1930s and the 1940s saw an outpouring of pro-labor culture, from the positive depictions of the taxi-cab strike in Waiting for Lefty, to proletarian novels like Christ in Concrete and In Dubious Battle, to the pro-labor film The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and, of course, the rise of the pro-labor folk song tradition with artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White.
What about the rest of the last century? As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, the American working class has long been a “silenced majority”—mostly invisible in news reports, mass-market magazines, films and television programs alike. Roseanne Barr, who starred in one of the most popular working class sitcoms in TV history (Rosanne), said that: “Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing.” Other scholars agree, such as Pepi Leistyna who shows that working-class people have been much maligned on TV, Ken Margolis who argues that unions are “tarnished” on the silver screen, and William J. Puette, who writes that the media views unions through a jaundiced eye.
While I agree that unions are usually portrayed negatively in popular culture, and especially in film, I think the positive relationship between labor and mass culture has, at times, been ignored or forgotten. Mass culture is profit driven, so we suspect that culture always endorses whatever ideology is best for capitalism. But culture produced for the masses is complicated, because in order to appeal to working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the mass audience, culture must represent some ideas and issues that are important to that audience.
In my current book project (Striking Images: Labor on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s), I argue that there were more positive and realistic representations of unions and workers on film and television in the 1950s than we remember. The new mass medium of television sometimes depicted labor even more positively than postwar film. Teleplays like Marty (1953), A Man is Ten Feet Tall (1955), and Clash by Night (1956) had a more radical edge than their film counterparts (Marty, 1955, Edge of the City, 1957, Clash by Night, 1952). Even Ralph Kramden, on an episode of The Honeymooners, staged a rent strike.
What about the present? A recent poll shows that 51% of Americans approve of unions. While 51% may not seem like a lot, this number has increased 10 percentage points in the last two years. Have cultural factors, like the Occupy movement, the national living wage campaign, and Robert Reich’s powerful documentary Inequality for All, helped Americans to view labor more sympathetically? Have they won out, despite intensified anti-union campaigns, with films like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down,which argue that teacher unions have ruined American public education, the anti-UAW campaign launched in Tennessee, not by Volkswagen but by Southern Republicans, and the continued press by the national “Right to Work” campaign?.
Perhaps culture isn’t on one side or another. Perhaps it is the battlefield itself. The skirmishes are everywhere. Though Republicans helped to tank the union drive at Volkswagen last month, P-Diddy and Danny Glover are helping Nissan workers in Jackson, Mississippi in their current union drive. In 2012, when Scott Walker’s anti-union policies were on the national stage, the Irish punk band Dropkick Murphys refused to allow Wisconsin Republicans to use their song “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” in Republican shows and videos. Recently in Pittsburgh, the rapper Jasiri-X wrote a crowd-energizing song for the Make it Our UMPC campaign called “People Over Profits.”
At the same time, in our creation, enjoyment and promotion of pro-union culture we cannot blind ourselves to the crippling role that labor law plays in the difficulties faced by unions, union organizers, and the tens of thousands of workers who want to join unions but cannot (yet) at Walmart, fast food restaurants, and Target. The worst thing about the Target video is not its slick production values or its horrible, falsehood-laden script, but the fact that it is perfectly legal for Target to force all of its employees to watch it on company time.
Kathy M. Newman