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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, “The most challenging issue facing liberalism today”:

Why must liberals recommit themselves to labor unions, in spite of their imperfections and weakened state?

Mainly because the problem of ever-growing income inequality — a problem that didn’t exist for the half-century prior to 1979 — is intimately associated with labor unions’ decline. If you look at a line tracing the fall and rise in income share for the top 1% during the past century alongside a second line tracing the rise and decline in union membership, you will notice immediately that these lines are mirror images.

To be sure, income inequality has many causes. But the decline in labor’s clout is one of the most significant — more significant, for example, than income-tax policy. Labor income’s share of the non-farm business sector has been dropping since 1960, but it has dropped most precipitously since 2000. A shift in GDP from labor to capital is precisely what you’d expect to see happen as unions’ influence dwindles. It’s also a recipe for the sort of financial instability that’s prevailed in the U.S. economy since the 1980s.

This process won’t reverse itself, so anyone who professes concern about the problem of income inequality and the social problems that derive from it has to worry about the declining clout that workers exercise through labor unions.

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:

We made this film in 1964 for the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. We are making it available in its entirety to the public now because we are concerned about the current attacks on Unions and workers. We hope that the film will remind the public of why Unions are so vital to our country.

The Inheritance shows what life was really like for immigrants and working Americans from the turn of the century through the fight for civil rights in the 1960s. This stirring history of our country shows their struggle to put down roots, form labor unions, survive wars, and finally, create a new and better life for themselves and our nation.

Our film explores a landscape largely unknown to the present generation — the dim sweatshops, coal mines and textile mills filled with children; the anxious years of the depression and labor’s bloody struggle for the right to organize; the battlefields of WW I and II; the seldom seen newsreel footage of the Memorial Day massacre at The Republic Steel strike in Chicago; the civil rights struggle — as every generation fights again to preserve and extend its freedoms. This is the film’s theme.

Judy Collins sings this theme song, as well as more great music sung by Judy, Pete Seeger,Tom Paxton and others.

We retain the copyright to the film, but give permission for the film to be used for educational purposes, in support of the right to collective bargaining.

Harold Mayer and Lynne Rhodes Mayer, Harold Mayer Productions, New Milford, CT

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