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HAPPY LABOR DAY! Movies to celebrate unions and workers

Happy Labor Day! Labor Day celebrates working people and the labor unions that brought working people the 40-hour work week, the 8-hour day, overtime pay, work-place safety, paid holidays and vacations, and a host of other protections and benefits. To honor those hard-working people and organized labor, here is a list (in no particular order) of a dozen worthy narrative films for Labor Day.

1. Norma Rae (1979)

For many people, the words “labor union” bring to mind the image of Sally Field standing up in defiance in “Norma Rae.” Field won an Oscar for her unforgettable, inspiring character, a worker in a Southern textile factory who becomes involved in labor organizing and stands up to management after the factory workers’ health is threatened in the workplace. This stirring drama, based on a true story, also stars Beau Bridges as Norma Rae’s husband Sonny and Ron Leibman as an union organizer from the Northeast. The moment when little Norma Rae stands up holding a sign that read “union” is one of the most memorable in film.

2. Matewan (1987)

Based on a famous 1920 strike that pitted Virginia coal miners against enforcers hired by the mine owners, writer/director John Sayles’ emotionally searing film dramatically explores the brutal lengths to which mining companies would go to prevent miners from organizing. Everything the miners have, even their homes and furniture, belong to the mining company, because like the song says “I owe my soul to the company store.” Chris Cooper stars as an organizer who leads a group of miners, including James Earl Jones, to defy them.

3. Bound for Glory (1976)

Director Hal Ashby’s biopic about folk singing legend Wood Guthrie stars David Carradine, and follows the singer/songwriter’s travels among California migrant farm workers during the Great Depression. Carradine does a great job portraying the restless legend in his younger years, in his formative journey to become a voice for unions and workers.

4. Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Director John Ford brings to life John Steinbeck’s searing novel of the hard lives of poor farmers displaced by the Great Depression’s Dust Bowl who travel to California only to struggle to survive as migrant workers in often miserable conditions and struggling for the right to organize. Ford created one of Hollywood’s great classics, with Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in a memorable role.

5. Swing Shift (1984)

Not about unions but about the women who stepped up to during World War II to keep the factories running. Goldie Hawn plays one of the wives who went to work, a step that changes how she sees the world and herself.