STRIKEWATCH: 'Matewan' may be the best union movie ever made...

As Chicago teachers prepare to take their places in the long history of the struggles of American working women and men for our rights, there will be a lot of need for people to understand what's glibly called "Labor History." For Chicago teachers, the best and most complete labor history is the one we are writing now, and have to compile while many of the pioneer leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union are still among us. From the 1960s through the 1980s, the Chicago Teachers Union was the most militant and successful big city union in the USA. The surrender of successive leaderships to a form of company unionism didn't end that, but just postponed a resumption of that tradition of struggle.

The movie Matewan is readily available. It is more than two hours long.But there aren't any movies yet made about the labor struggles of teachers, and the teacher movies of the past 25 years are almost all reactionary individualistic propaganda for the one percent. While this propaganda began before "Stand and Deliver" (the most odious of the batch) with Wall Street's promotion of the Marva Collins Myth out of Chicago (and debunked in the pages of Substance fact for fact), we'll have to create the teacher union movies going forward, as they say.

Meanwhile, though, there are a few dozen union movies worth watching, and in this reporter's opinion, the best among them is "Matewan."

It's a movie every union woman and man should spend some time with, hopefully also with family. We need to understand our roots, and although it may seem that West Virginia coal miners in 1920 are a far cry from Chicago teachers in 2012, a closer look will enable most to see the similarities.

But I'm not the one to best review that great movie.

Historian Eric Foner on John Sayles’ MATEWAN (and while you're at it, in your spare time, you might want to take a quick read of Foner's multi-volume history of American Labor).

“MATEWAN tells the story of a bitter 1920 strike in the coal mines of southern West Virginia. The struggle culminates in the Matewan Massacre, a violent (and historically accurate) confrontation in which the town’s mayor, seven armed guards hired by the coal operators, and two miners lost their lives. However, this film does more than chronicle a particularly dramatic episode in American labor history. In the hands of director John Sayles, MATEWAN offers a meditation on broad philosophical questions rarely confronted in American films: the possibility of interracial cooperation, the merits of violence and nonviolence in combating injustice, and the threat posed by concentrated economic power to American notions of political democracy and social justice.

Although MATEWAN is peopled with actual historical figures — notably Sid Hatfield, the town’s pro-union chief of police and the central protagonist in the massacre — Sayles uses two fictional characters to propel the plot. One is Danny Radnor — a boy preacher, miner, and union supporter — in whose voice as narrator, looking back from fifty years later, the story of Matewan is told. The second is the film’s main character, Joe Kenehan, a World War I veteran, former member of the Industrial Workers of the World, organizer for the United Mine Workers of America, and committed pacifist…

… unusual among filmmakers, Sayles, an O. Henry Award-winning prose writer, has published a book, THINKING IN PICTURES, about the making of MATEWAN. Apart from the script itself, which takes up half the volume, the book mostly explains how Sayles financed MATEWAN… and offers insights about such technical matters as casting, shooting, and lighting. It also tells how Sayles became fascinated with West Virginia’s coal-mining district, its people, and their traditions after hitchhiking through the region in the late 1960s. This experience may help to explain the film’s greatest strength – its evocation of the texture of the miner’s world. Through music, regional accents, and numerous local characters, Sayles successfully creates a sense of the Matewan community. Visually, too, the film is remarkably effective, thanks to Haskell Wexler’s careful and deliberate cinematography. Dramatic as it is, MATEWAN is not “entertaining” in the conventional sense. With its accented dialogue often difficult to follow and its slow-moving pace, it demands concentration on the part of the viewer, but partly because of this, it succeeds admirably in creating a sense of time and place.

Yet the relentless concentration on the local community, MATEWAN’s greatest strength, also contributes to its most glaring weaknesses — the absence of context, both historical and political.

The Matewan strike [was not] an isolated local incident, as portrayed in the film. Rather, it formed part of a prolonged struggle for unionization that lasted for decades. Unionism in 1920 was hardly new to the miners of southern West Virginia, and it did not require someone coming from outside the community [Joe Kenehan] to bring its message to Matewan. The region-wide 1912 strike had inaugurated a period of intensely violent struggle between the union and mine owners.

In the years that followed, moreover, the mine workers union, perhaps the most racially integrated labor organization in the nation, succeeded in uniting black and white miners, as well as natives and immigrants. The problem is not that Sayles does not trace these earlier events but that he gives the miners no sense of their own history, forcing them to rely on an outsider for lessons in union organizing and racial tolerance…

If the house of labor has been transformed since the events depicted in MATEWAN, the film’s pleas for nonviolence, interracial harmony, and economic justice are hardly irrelevant today. It is sobering to reflect that these ideals seem as utopian to contemporary viewers as when they were propounded by the I.W.W. and United Mine Workers of America nearly a century ago.”


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