Labor Day Movie Time: Once Were Unions


Before saying goodbye to Labor Day weekend and heading back to work and school tomorrow morning, here’s a movie to get you into the spirit of Labor Day. It’s an hour-long documentary called “The Inheritance,” and believe me, it’s a great way to spend an evening. It was made in 1964 for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, back when the Amalgamated was still the living, beating heart of a still living and breathing American Jewish labor movement. It’s as moving a film today as it was then, and a thousand times more important. (Full disclosure: I grew up in the Amalgamated. My father spent nearly all his adult life working there, first as an economist, then as a lawyer.)

It’s no secret that unions are on the ropes today. In their heyday in the 1950s they represented about 35% of the American workforce. Today it’s 11% — and less than 7% in the private sector. Why does it matter? Journalist Timothy Noah answers that question today about as well as anyone has recently in his Labor Day column on MSNBC.com, “The most challenging issue facing liberalism today”:

But the urgency of unions’ decline runs deeper than that. Financial journalist Justin Fox, executive editor of the Harvard Business Review Group, wrote an important post today on his HBR blog, bluntly titled “What Unions No Longer Do.” The short version: Unions no longer equalize incomes. Unions no longer counteract racial inequality. Unions no longer play a big role in assimilating immigrants. Unions no longer give lower-income Americans a political voice.

That last point is critical. As weak as they are, the unions are still the biggest single force in America for liberal and progressive causes, the multi-issue giant among tiny, one-issue lobbies competing for our attention. They’re also the only force that can honestly aspire to mobilize and speak for the majority, as opposed to the squabbling minority- and identity-based interests that make up what’s left of the American center. But in their reduced state, and constantly battling against complete elimination, they can hardly match the financial and political clout of big business. If America is to see a revival of liberal, humanist politics, it needs a revived labor movement.

Enough chatter. Here’s Part 1 of “The Inheritance.” (Parts 2, 3 and 4 appear after the jump.)

“The Inheritance,” Part 1 (of 4)

“The Inheritance,” Part 2 (of 4)


“The Inheritance,” Part 3 (of 4)


“The Inheritance,” Part 4 (of 4)


From the filmmakers:

Written by

J.J. Goldberg

J.J. Goldberg

Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).

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Labor Day Movie Time: Once Were Unions

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