Author: Matt Witt

Director of the American Labor Education Center. Coordinates, a website that provides educational tools for more effective communications and grassroots organizing.

Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed


All the Real Indians Died Off
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker
Beacon, 2016

Two scholars refute 21 myths about Native Americans commonly taught in U.S. schools, media, and pop culture.


Behold the Dreamers
By Imbolo Mbue
Random House, 2016

The lives of two couples intersect in this timely novel – a Lehman Brothers executive and his wife on the eve of the 2008 Wall Street crash, and two hard-working immigrants from Cameroon who end up working for them. Told from the Africans’ point of view, the story has many poignant moments reflecting cultural and class differences.


City of Grit and Gold
By Maud Macrory Powell
Allium, 2017

This short novel can work for everyone from middle-school students to adults as it recounts from the point of view of a 12-year-old girl how her family becomes divided by the Haymarket strike for the 8-hour day by mostly immigrant workers in 1886 in Chicago.


From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation
By Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Haymarket, 2016

Throughout U.S. history, black activists and their allies have found that confronting issues of race requires also confronting issues of class, gender, and economic justice.


Hitler’s American Model
By James Q. Whitman
Princeton University Press, 2017

In the 1930s, the German Nazis drew on American laws and practices on race as they laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.


By Solmaz Sharif
Graywolf, 2016

A poet of Iranian descent writes powerfully about the impacts of war, both in the Middle East and here in the U.S. Some poems are built around phrases in the U.S. military’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. Others are in the form of censored letters from military prison, with key words missing.


Small Great Things
By Jodi Picoult
Ballentine, 2016

A very readable and suspenseful novel (despite an implausible ending) doubles as a thought-provoking introduction for white readers to issues of racism, white privilege, and implicit bias.


The Fortunes
By Peter Ho Davies
Houghton Mifflin, 2016

Chinese-American experiences are explored in this novel through four lives in four time periods – a worker in the California gold rush and building of the railroads; a Hollywood actress in the 1920s; Vincent Chin, killed by Detroit auto workers who thought he was Japanese; and a Chinese-American man who goes with his wife to adopt a baby in China.


The Revolution Will Not Be Funded
By Unite
Duke University Press, 2017

Back in print with a new foreword, this classic collection of essays describes how foundation and government funding discourages some nonprofits from fighting for fundamental change.


The Vanishing Middle Class
By Peter Temin
MIT Press, 2017

Some of the economic, political, and historical roots of the increasing divide between America’s top 1% in wealth and those at the bottom and in the shrinking middle are explored.


By Laurie Loewenstein
Akashic, 2014

The main character in this romantic tale is a woman who is a traveling speaker for women’s rights before and during World War I and the fight for women’s suffrage.


Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?
By Kathleen Collins
Harper Collins, 2017

Sixteen short stories by the African American director of the 1982 film, Losing Ground, evoke relationships and experiences during the civil rights era of the 1960s and 1970s and beyond.


Where the Line is Drawn
By Raja Shehadeh
The New Press, 2017

A leading Palestinian writer tells how occupation of his country has affected him personally over the past 40 years and describes the ups and downs of his long friendship with a Jew living in Israel.



4.1 Miles, 2016

This short film provides a powerful snapshot of the struggle of Syrian refugees to escape to safety, and of the efforts by Greek Coast Guard crews to help them despite severely limited resources


Acts and Intermissions, 2016

An hour-long collage of words and images centered on anarchist Emma Goldman draws on archival footage, reenactment, and current events.


Fatima, 2016

A Muslim immigrant to France and her two daughters each follow different paths as they try to build a life in their new home.


Graduation, 2017

A Romanian doctor has long dreamed that his daughter will go to a university abroad and escape their country’s bleakness and corruption. But in trying to realize that dream, will he become part of the system he wants her to escape?


In The Radiant City, 2016

How long must people suffer for past mistakes, and how does a family find a pathway to forgiveness? These are some questions at the heart of this thoroughly engaging and flawlessly made drama. Twenty years before the action begins, a 17-year-old boy killed a child by setting fire to a house. He was sent to prison based on the testimony of his younger brother. Now, the older man is up for parole.


Ixcanul, 2016

In this Guatemalan feature film that gains authenticity from a mostly non-professional cast, a 17-year-old girl in a remote village faces one cultural and economic obstacle after another as she tries to follow her dreams.


Sing, 2016

Faced with an imperious teacher, members of a children’s choir invent a creative way to stand up for each other in this charming 25-minute short feature from Hungary.


The Other Son, 2012

Two boys have been raised for their first 18 years on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Then, their families learn that their sons were born in the same hospital and mistakenly switched.


The Watermelon Woman, 2016

Remastered for its 20th anniversary, this pioneering film follows a young black lesbian filmmaker trying to make a documentary about an elusive African American actress from the 1930s.


Timecode, 2016
Luna and Diego are parking lot security guards, but this delightfully unique, Oscar-nominated, 15-minute feature from Spain shows us that there is much more to these two than their drab uniforms might suggest.


Watani: My Homeland, 2016

This short documentary follows a mother and her four young children as they flee the war zone in Aleppo, Syria, and make their way to Germany.

Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed


Blue Ridge Commons
By Kathryn Newfont

This detailed history documents the role of some mountain residents in western North Carolina in opposing wilderness designation of national forests but supporting campaigns to block clear cutting and oil and gas development. The consistent thread was that they wanted to maintain their tradition of hunting and fishing while being able to log in a sustainable way.


Chasing Molecules
By Elizabeth Grossman

Chemicals in consumer products threaten our health and planet. Some scientists are developing “green chemistry” to substitute safer alternatives.


Conspiracy of Silence
By Chris Lamb

The campaign to desegregate baseball took more than a decade. Sportswriters for radical and African-American newspapers played a crucial role, while nearly all white writers for major publications either remained silent or opposed the change.


Crusade 2.0
By John Feffer C

Islam has replaced communism as the all- purpose enemy whose presence justifies huge increases in U.S. military spending, invasions of other countries, and erosion of civil liberties at home. The author argues that those who oppose Islamophobia must advocate not mere “tolerance” but active, positive engagement on a personal, community, and international level.


Dear White America
By Tim Wise

A leading white analyst of racism in America once again provides fresh takes as he punctures myths and defenses.


Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power
By Amy Sonnie and James Tracy

This is a history of organizations in the 1960s that united working-class whites for radical change. As part of their mission, they directly challenged racism because it divided working people. At times, they supported radical black groups with whom they had more in common than with white power brokers.


It Started in Wisconsin
Edited by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle
VERSO, 2012

This anthology focuses in part on the historical background behind the recent struggle over workers’ rights in Wisconsin. It also includes eyewitness accounts.


Living as Form Edited
by Nato Thompson

Inspiring text and color photos describe more than a hundred projects from around the world that combined elements of art, social engagement, and community building during the past two decades. Some involved performance art or historical reenactments with a twist. Others involved occupying public spaces. Still others gave normally marginalized people a chance to express and see themselves in a new way. All challenged corporate commercial culture.


Mink River
By Brian Doyle

This exceptional novel was written by a poet, and it shows in the lyrical style that brings alive characters and stories in a small town on the Oregon coast. Both the style and stories draw on the inhabitants’ cultural roots, from Native Americans to Irish immigrants.


So Rich, So Poor
By Peter Edelman

A lifelong activist who resigned from the Clinton administration to protest the gutting of welfare programs asks why poverty rates have steadily grown in America over the past ten years and proposes some solutions.


The Color of Law
By Steve Babson, Dave Riddle, and David Elsila WAYNE

The late Ernie Goodman, the subject of this detailed biography, was a Detroit- based attorney who devoted his career to supporting movements of the powerless, from the industrial sit-down strikes of the 1930s to victims of the Red Scare of the 1950s to the civil rights movement and the Attica prison rebellion of the 1970s. The law, he learned, serves those with wealth unless grassroots movements create enough pressure to force the courts and the political system to provide justice.


The Highest Vocation
By Helen Fox

A professor at the University of Michigan trained in the bottom-up educational principles of Paulo Freire raises controversial issues about the experiences of students of the Millennial Generation. As a broad generalization, she says, faculty who work with them find many more comfortable with structure than with challenging analysis and debate and more willing to engage in quick-fix volunteerism than to commit to long-term activism on complex issues.


The Invisible Enemy
By Greta de Jong

The civil rights movement ended most forms of open, legal segregation in the 1960s. But the struggle continued against “invisible” forms of racism that claimed that inequality was the result of color-blind market forces rather than conscious corporate and public policies.


The Operators
By Michael Hastings

A Rolling Stone reporter describes how policymakers’ decisions about the war in Afghanistan that have affected millions of lives have been based on ego, career enhancement, and power struggles. By his account, U.S. generals and Hillary Clinton maneuvered for escalation, Vice-President Biden argued for troop withdrawal and assignment of special forces to pursue “less than a hundred” Al-Qaeda operatives, and President Obama, indecisive and looking for a compromise that would offend no one, ended up giving the generals nearly everything they wanted.


The Passion of Bradley Manning
By Chase Madar
OR BOOKS, 2012

A short book tells the story of the soldier accused of giving thousands of documents to WikiLeaks to expose government lies and law breaking in connection with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It explains why the documents were so revealing, why he might have found it necessary to release them, and the physical torture he has suffered while imprisoned on the Obama administration’s watch.


Valley of Shadows and Dreams
By Ken Light and Melanie Light
HEYDAY, 2012

A beautifully printed book of black-and- white photos and text portrays California’s Central Valley as a place where the greed of agribusiness has destroyed natural resources and created deep inequality.


Wisconsin Uprising
Edited by Michael D. Yates

The battle in Wisconsin over elimination of public workers’ collective bargaining rights showed that many Americans were ready to take to the streets to oppose the corporate political agenda. But it also exposed longstanding problems in the way the union movement operates and defines its mission.


Words of Protest, Words of Freedom
Edited by Jeffrey Lamar Coleman

More than 150 poems from the 1960s— mostly from the civil rights movement— bring alive the emotions of that time.


Working on the Railroad
By Jay Youngdahl

Major railroads hired Navajo workers to do the most physically demanding track work, knowing that they often would be unaware of their rights under American law. An attorney who represented many of the workers draws on interviews to describe their experiences.



Dhobi Ghat

Four characters from varying economic classes in Mumbai intersect in this engaging story that tells a lot about India and about the class divide anywhere.


Art Is…The Permanent Revolution

Some of the best-known artists of Europe such as Rembrandt, Goya, Daumier, and Picasso created graphic prints protesting war, inequality, poverty, and exploitation, and many were jailed or exiled for doing so. This unusually creative film shows some of the best protest work by sixty of them. It is accompanied by commentary by three contemporary American protest artists who show, step by step, how they make etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs today.


The American Dream

Two African-American friends in L.A. film their final days before they are sent to fight in Afghanistan, as well as some of their experiences while there. Despite a slow start, the resulting film is an exceptionally effective and unusual work of art about war, race, friendship, and American culture.


Austin Unbound

Austin was born a girl but felt from a very young age that he was really a boy. At the time this forty-three-minute documentary was filmed, he was going through his final operation to become a man. Born deaf and with an open and engaging personality, he shares the feelings that brought him to this point and leaves no question unanswered.


On the Ice

This gripping feature film begins by showing the lives of native teenagers in an isolated Alaskan town 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where parties feature homegrown rap music performances. When two boys go on a seal hunt with a friend, a life-changing accident creates a crisis for them, their families, and their community. The film’s powerful authenticity is enhanced by a director and cast of native people from that region.



A fifty-six-minute documentary consists primarily of interviews about an FBI program in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to disrupt, discredit, and “neutralize” leaders of black, Latino, Native American, and white radical organizations. Many such leaders were assassinated or imprisoned. The FBI infiltrated such organizations to sow dissension or provoke actions that could be used as an excuse for repression. Footage from the time includes clips of U.S. Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho) whose committee investigated and documented these activities by the FBI and CIA that used “national security” as a pretext for violating Americans’ basic civil liberties.


*This column is adapted from World Wide Work, written by Matt Witt, and published eight times a year by the American Labor Education Center, an independent nonprofit that operates www.TheWorkSite. org, a free website that provides downloadable tools and tips for educators and activists.

Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed


A Moment in the Sun
By John Sayles
McSweeney’s, 2011

In a 955-page novel, Sayles captures a major slice of American history from a working class perspective. During a five-year period at the end of the 1800s, his vivid characters are involved in the U.S. war with Spain over the Philippines and Cuba, the gold rush in the Yukon, continuing battles over racism in the South, and much more.


Black California
Edited by Aparajita Nanda
Heyday, 2011

Contributors to this anthology that begins with the founding of California and moves to the present day include many well known African-American writers, from Langston Hughes and Chester Himes to June Jordan and Devorah Major.


Death of the Liberal Class
By Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 2011

In a convincing and bitter rant, a former New York Times reporter details how the corporate elite has defeated and co-opted the Democratic Party, universities, the news media, unions, religious institutions, and other pillars of the liberal class that once provided a buffer between working people and raw corporate power. Like most recent books about the sorry state of the world, it does not end with suggestions of what to do.


Local Economic Development in the 21st Century
By Daphne T. Greenwood and Richard P.F. Holt
M.E. SharpE, 2010

In very readable prose aimed at community activists and public officials, two economics professors argue that “economic development” can no longer simply mean attracting big corporations on whatever terms they dictate but must take into account environmental sustainability, quality of life, and economic and social equity.


Re:Imagining Change
By Patrick Reinsborough and Doyle Canning
PM Press, 2010

This short paperback is a useful tool to help activists think about campaign strategy and how to effectively frame issues.


Roses for Isabella
By Diana Cohn, illustrated by Amy Cordova
SteinerBooks, 2011

In this beautifully illustrated children’s book, a young girl in Ecuador tells about her life. Her parents work on a large farm that grows roses for export to the U.S. They recently switched from a farm where they were exposed to toxic chemicals to a Fair Trade producer that provides a safer work environment and pays more. A teaching guide is also available.


The Fear Within
By Scott Martelle
Rutgers University Press, 2011

Throughout American history, crises have been exploited to take away freedom of speech from those whose beliefs challenge powerful economic interests. A former Los Angeles Times reporter looks back at the 1949 trial of the leaders of the Communist Party U.S.A. who were prosecuted not for actions they had taken but for their ideas and beliefs. His goal is not to lionize the defendants, but to remind Americans, in the age of the Patriot Act, how easily our freedoms can be taken away in the name of protecting them.


The Great American Stickup
By Robert Scheer
Nation Books, 2011

The editor of Truthdig provides one of the most readable accounts yet of how Presidents Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama allowed Wall Street to enrich itself while jeopardizing most Americans’ economic security.


The Man Who Never Died
By William M. Adler
BloomsBury, 2011

Joe Hill, the subject of the famous song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” was a songwriter for the International Workers of the World who was executed in 1915 by Mormon authorities in Utah for a murder he did not commit.


The Ringer
By Jenny Shank
Permanent Press, 2011

This engaging novel is based on an actual incident in which Denver police mistakenly killed an innocent Mexican immigrant. The story begins with the killing and follows the families of both the victim and the police officer who was responsible.



Where Men Win Glory
By Jon Krakauer
DoubleDay, 2009

This may be the best introductory book on the U.S. war on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The core of it is the story of Pat Tillman, a professional football player who volunteered to serve in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tillman was killed by friendly fire—a fact the Pentagon and Bush White House deliberately covered up. Krakauer provides a gripping account of Tillman’s life, warts and all; the circumstances of his death; and the attempt to exploit him as a martyr supposedly killed in battle. At the same time, the book provides thorough yet accessible historical background behind Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan.


Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights
Edited by Robert W. McChesney and Victor Pickard
The New Press, 2011

This anthology of writings by many of the leading progressive media critics provides thoughtful perspectives on how Americans will get information in the future, how to promote a diversity of voices, and whether there is still an important role for professional journalists.


Amigo, 2011

John Sayles’s new film is set in a village in the Philippines in 1900. The U.S. has taken the country from Spain and made it an American territory. Insurgents are fighting to regain control of their nation. The war’s principal effect, Sayles suggests, was to make many in the younger generation of Filipinos hate the United States. Some viewers may see parallels to America’s more recent wars.


Anpo, 2010

The unusual way this documentary is made makes it particularly interesting. The subject is the popular movement in Japan from the end of World War II to the present day to protest the continued presence of large scale U.S. military bases. The story is told not by a narrator but through interviews with Japanese painters, photographers, and filmmakers, along with images from their work related to this subject.


Brother Towns/Pueblos Hermanos, 2009

More than a thousand workers from a town in Guatemala have moved to Jupiter, a coastal town in Florida. Jupiter responded by creating a center where immigrants can learn English, get training, and connect with employers. Some local residents object, saying the center encourages law breaking and drives down wage levels. This hour-long documentary, shot in both communities, shows why the Guatemalans come and gives voice to all perspectives on the immigration issue.


Even the Rain, 2010

This innovative feature tells the story of a Spanish crew that is making a dramatic film to show the truth about the conquest of the Americas. They decide to shoot their film in Bolivia where they will be able to pay most of the actors only two dollars a day. Their film, as we see it being shot, succeeds in bringing the conquest alive from the natives’ point of view. But the production schedule is threatened when one of the indigenous people the directors hired as an actor becomes involved in leading protests against the government over access to drinking water. The film we are watching and the film within it become intertwined as the directors’ core values are challenged.


I Am a Man, 2009

A twenty-seven-minute documentary features participants, as well as their descendants, from the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis that Dr. Martin Luther King was visiting when he was killed. The strike, sparked by the deaths of two workers on an unsafe truck, added momentum to a nationwide drive for unionization and better treatment for city and county workers who were paid poverty wages. The film and a study guide can be downloaded from the project’s website.


Locked Out, 2011

This hour-long documentary shows, from beginning to end, a four-month battle by nearly six hundred borate miners in a remote desert town in California against drastic takeaways demanded by Rio Tinto, the third largest mining company in the world.


The Welcome, 2011

Several dozen U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam (nearly all of them white) met for several days and, with the help of a professional facilitator, talked and wrote poignant stories and poems about their traumatic experiences during and after their service. This should be a must-see film for all non-veteran Americans to get a glimpse of this aspect of the damage these wars are doing.


There But for Fortune, 2011

Phil Ochs was one of the most influential songwriters of the 1960s. His songs became anthems of the anti-war and social justice movements, but as the social upheaval of that period lost momentum, he became depressed and plagued by alcoholism until, at age thirty-five, he committed suicide. The film is a touching requiem for the man and the movement he was part of.


Unnatural Causes, 2008

Americans’ health and life expectancy are closely related to whether they have a job, how much money they have, where they live, and the color of their skin. A seven-part series documents this reality that has been largely unmentioned in national and state-level debates about health care reform. One segment is an hour long and the others a half-hour each.


William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, 2009

Kunstler was one of the most important lawyers of the 1960s and 1970s, from major civil rights cases to the Chicago 8 to the Attica prison revolt to the American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee. This profile was made by his daughters, Sarah and Emily, who are activists themselves. They use their special access to present a nuanced portrait of a controversial figure whose choices many people, including friends and family, did not always agree with.

*This column is adapted from World Wide Work, written by Matt Witt, and published eight times a year by the American Labor Education Center, an independent non-profit that operates, a free website that provides downloadable tools and tips for educators and activists.

Seizing the Moment

Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s
Edited by Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow
Verso, 2010

Reviewed by Matt Witt

Why have progressives been unable to take full advantage of historic opportunities—including the current economic transformation—to build a broad, sustained mass movement and win fundamental social change?

That’s the question provoked by Rebel Rank and File, a collection of essays by left-leaning academics and veteran labor activists. Their analysis concerns the largely forgotten workers’ rebellion that took place in America from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s, but many of their thoughts are relevant to the strategic choices activists face today.

Many younger activists know that during what the authors call the “long 1970s” national movements fought for civil rights, women’s liberation, environmental protection, gay rights, and ending the Vietnam War. But few know about the revolt among working people that would make the pro-union protests in Wisconsin this year look like a church picnic by comparison.

As Robert Brenner and Judith Stein explain in their chapters about the economic changes that set the stage for the workers’ revolt, Americans who grew up during the expansion that followed World War II had high expectations for living well and being treated with respect. By the mid-1960s, the economic expansion was slowing, global competition was increasing, and workers’ expectations clashed sharply with a drive by corporations to maintain profits by imposing unreasonable workloads and limiting pay and benefits.

Many of the Rebel Rank and File essayists’ thoughts are relevant to the strategic choices activists face today.

It may be hard for those who didn’t live through it to imagine the long 1970s upsurge illustrated in Rebel Rank and File by countless examples such as these:

• From the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, the number of illegal strikes (“wildcat” walkouts not authorized by workers’ unions) more than doubled, to about fourteen hundred per year. In industries such as auto, the increase was even greater. For example, wildcat strikes per year at Chrysler more than quadrupled during that period.

• In 1970 alone, there were 5,716 strikes (legal and illegal) involving more than three million workers—and one out of six union members in America. Examples include a 197-day strike by twenty-seven thousand construction workers in Kansas City, a sixty-four-day walkout by twentythree thousand rubber workers, a work stoppage by thirty-five thousand airline employees, and a strike by forty-two thousand taxi drivers in New York.

• More than two hundred thousand postal workers conducted an eight-day, illegal nationwide wildcat strike in which they had to overcome the deployment of thirty thousand National Guard troops.

• In 1972, young workers shut down the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio for three weeks over a doubling of assembly-line speed—a struggle that the twenty-nine-yearold local union president called “the Woodstock of the working man.”

• Farm workers in California struck the major vegetable growers despite a disagreement over strategy with their union president, Cesar Chavez, who wanted them to rely on a boycott campaign among urban liberals instead.

• Coal miners shut down most of the mines in West Virginia in a political strike protesting rising prices at the gasoline pumps, and independent truckers blockaded major highways throughout the Midwest and East Coast over the same issue.

• Four thousand nurses in northern California struck forty hospitals and clinics.

• Longshore workers on the East and Gulf Coasts struck for 116 days. Three years later, their counterparts on the West Coast struck for 123 days.

• Nearly fifty thousand telephone workers conducted an illegal statewide strike in New York.

During this same period, state and local public employees, who were excluded from the National Labor Relations Act passed in the 1930s, demanded the legal right to collective bargaining, often engaging in illegal strikes to force politicians to act. Young insurgents in the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME) established some of the first public sector collective bargaining precedents that were then built upon by activist teachers. In 1966 alone, there were at least fifty-four illegal strikes involving almost forty-five thousand teachers. As a result of this upsurge, the National Education Association (NEA) grew by more than one million members by the end of the 1970s, and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) experienced a substantial increase as well.

Reform caucuses sprang up in many local and national unions as many entrenched leaders proved unable to respond to rank-and-file discontent. The conflict between old guard officials and courageous reformers drew national attention when Jock Yablonski, an executive board member of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), challenged the reelection of UMWA President Tony Boyle in 1969. Boyle was a leading symbol of “business unionism” who explained to Congress after seventy-eight miners were killed at an unsafe mine in West Virginia: “The UMWA will not abridge the rights of mine operators in running the mines. We follow the judgment of the coal operators, right or wrong.” After a campaign in which votes were stolen and reformers threatened with violence, Yablonski and his wife and daughter were murdered as they lay sleeping in their home in Pennsylvania. Boyle was eventually convicted of ordering the murders, and the rank-and-file Miners for Democracy slate won a government-super vised rerun election—an historic victory that inspired reformers in other unions.

The most sustained reform movement, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, began during the long 1970s, preparing the way for the eventual election of a reformer as president in 1991 and the groundbreaking national strike by 180,000 United Parcel Service workers in 1997 that directly challenged corporations’ strategy of converting good full-time jobs into lowerpaid, part-time jobs without benefits.

As retired Communications Workers staffer Steve Early writes in the conclusion to Rebel Rank and File, the insurgents of the long 1970s laid the groundwork for change in some unions “through the institutions they created, the reforms they won within unions, the continued participation of many of their militants, and the continuing relevance of their ideas” (p. 358). The increased emphasis by some unions on helping nonunion workers organize, the AFL-CIO’s gradual shift in its positions on immigration and war, and some increase in diversity in the ranks and leadership all had their roots in the long 1970s rebellion.

But as researcher Aaron Brenner points out in his introduction, “The rank-and-file rebellion of the long 1970s did not in the end halt the employers’ offensive, transform the bureaucratic torpidity of the official labor movement, or reverse the downward trend in private sector union density” (p. xiv).

The reasons for the rebellion’s limited success are explored by a number of the contributors to this collection. Dan La Botz looks at rank-and-file movements in the Teamsters. Frank Bardacke traces the history of the United Farm Workers. Kieran Taylor considers radical black organizing in Detroit’s auto plants. Paul Nyden analyzes Miners for Democracy. Marjorie Murphy describes tensions between AFT leaders and black activists seeking community control of the schools, and Sue Cobble examines feminist movements that emerged among flight attendants, clerical workers, and household workers.

Across these analyses, three principal reasons emerge for the rebellion’s dissipation—all of which remain relevant today. The first has been explored thoroughly by many other analysts: what Brenner calls “the sheer power and ferocious opposition of capital” (p. xv) that moved jobs to the mostly nonunion South and abroad, undermined workers’ rights with sophisticated union-busting tactics, and financed the growth of a powerful right-wing political force to implement the corporate agenda.

The second argument also will be familiar to many readers. The rankand-file insurgency failed because, as Brenner puts it, “it could not overcome the bureaucratic business unionism that emerged during World War II” (p. xv). Union leaders’ desire “to preserve both the unions as institutions and their own positions at the helm of those institutions drove them to accommodate employers’ requirements for profits, on the one hand, and eliminate opposition from the membership, on the other” (p. xvi).

Reluctance to rock the boat contributed to “the unions’ failure to create and sustain an independent class-based political party, and their embrace of the Democratic Party instead,” Brenner writes. “This dependence on a party dominated by business and still heavily influenced by its largely racist and conservative Southern wing helps explain why the official labor movement failed to give much support to the mass social movements of the period, leaving both the labor and social movements weaker” (p. xvi).

The third reason for the rebellion’s limitations—the “debilitating weaknesses” of the rebellion itself—has not been written about as much, making it the special contribution of this volume to today’s strategy debates. One weakness was that reformers accepted the basic framework of labor relations and the political system. Thousands of rank-and-file workers, elected leaders, and union staff worked hard to make collective bargaining and the contract grievance procedure work better, to help a few more workers organize, and to elect Democrats who were marginally better than their opponents, but none of that challenged basic power relations in the workplace or within society at large.

A second weakness was that reformers accepted, in contributor Kim Moody’s words, the “fragmentation and disunity” built into the labor movement with its “maze of jurisdictional boundaries” (p. 144). Even well-developed reform movements within individual unions had little organizational contact or connection, so “the various forms of rebellion never became a single movement like the civil rights, women’s, or antiwar movements” (p. 141).

A third weakness, writes Brenner, was that “the rank-and-file struggles and groups that emerged in this period mostly failed to build material alliances with the era’s social movements” (p. xvii). They weren’t able to build a unified progressive movement that went beyond challenging a single employer or industry to consistently and effectively articulating a vision and fighting for broad social change.

Today, all but the richest Americans have lost economic security and vital public services as a result of unregulated greed on the part of Wall Street and other corporate special interests. The time is ripe for unions and other progressive institutions to offer a collective alternative vision and program. This would include production jobs that promote sustainability and reduced energy use; universal health care; public education that prepares students to think and to participate in society; affordable housing; efficient and fair public services; a foreign policy based on the mutual interests of working people around the world; and much more.

Some unions are involved in these larger issues in mostly token ways. But for the most part, unions’ human, financial, and organizational resources remain focused on negotiating contracts, handling grievances, fighting off budget cuts, and slowing the erosion of benefits—all understandable activity, but no more likely to reverse the corporate agenda than similar efforts in the long 1970s. This constricted definition of institutional purpose is not unique to unions, of course; many other public interest groups continue to conduct business as usual in their own silos, pursuing worthy but narrowly defined issues and trying to attract enough grant money to stay afloat.

The question that lingers, from the long 1970s through today, is where the leadership and resources will come from to build a united movement capable of winning progressive public policies comparable to or better than those enjoyed in most other industrialized countries. What should we do so that thirty years from now, a similar collection of authors, producing a book about our era, won’t write that in a time of potential upheaval, a lot of us worked really hard and with great sincerity for the particular organization, issue, leader, or party that was our focus, but we failed to build a united movement that could challenge Wall Street and global corporations and change the course of history?


OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM: Books and Films You May Have Missed


A Dream in Polar Fog
By Yuri Rytkheu
Archipelago, 2005

In this touching story, a Canadian sailor is stranded in the northernmost tip of Siberia and gradually becomes part of a native community there. As he learns more about the natives’ relationship with the natural world and their tradition of helping each other survive in the harsh Arctic climate, he begins to question the cultural values and future of his own civilization.


Civil Rights History from the Ground Up
Edited by Emilye Crosby
University of Georgia, 2011

This powerful anthology challenges established myths about the civil rights movement—that it started with an unplanned impulse by Rosa Parks to sit in the front of a bus, that it was the product of Martin Luther King’s vision, that it took place only in the South, and so on. Contributors also examine debates within the movement over sexism, nonviolence, and other issues.


Crossing Zero
By Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould
City Lights, 2011

Journalists who have been covering Afghanistan and Pakistan for more than twenty years explain the history of American policy toward those countries. Bush’s policies in the region were counterproductive, they argue, and Obama’s are even more so.


Drowning in Oil
By Loren C. Steffy
McGraw-Hill, 2011

A columnist for the Houston Chronicle does an excellent job of both exposing BP’s “reckless pursuit of profit” that preceded the oil disaster off the Gulf Coast and giving voice to some of the oil workers and communities who have been affected.


Failure by Design
By Josh Bivens
Cornell University, 2011

Economic inequality is growing in America as a result of public policy choices influenced by corporate lobbyists. Working people are paying an “inequality tax” as these policies drive down their incomes and savings.


Fields of Resistance
By Silvia Giagnoni
Haymarket, 2011

A writer provides an engaging personal account of seven months spent in Immokalee, Florida, “tomato capital of the world,” during a campaign to pressure Burger King to increase migrant farmworkers’ pay. Through the stories of people she met, Giagnoni explores the human reality behind issues such as immigration, workers’ rights, corporate accountability, the real cost of our food, and more.


Green Is the New Red
By Will Potter
City Lights, 2011

Since 9/11, corporate interests have intensified a drive to have civil disobedience and other methods of protest labeled “domestic terrorism” under state and federal laws. Much of this coordinated effort has initially been focused on those who have engaged in direct action on environmental and animal abuse issues. The author does not approve of all tactics these activists have used, but he makes a strong case that new restrictions, drastic penalties, and selective prosecution represent a revival of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. Once new precedents are established, he argues, other types of protesters against corporate abuses will be targeted as well.


The Sacred White Turkey
By Frances Washburn
University of Nebraska, 2010

A Lakota medicine woman and her granddaughter find a white turkey on their doorstep on Easter morning. Is it a spiritual sign, or just an unusual bird? So begins this entertaining novel about one native community.


There Is Power in a Union
By Philip Dray
Doubleday, 2011

This 674-page history of industrial unions in the U.S. provides a useful introductory overview by compiling information from many other accounts in one place. Covering nearly two hundred years in one volume, its weakness is that it only skims the surface of many events and barely mentions the rise of public employee unionism, rankand-file reform movements in a number of major unions, and many other key topics.


When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home
By Paula J. Caplan
MIT Press, 2011

When veterans who make it home from Afghanistan or Iraq have psychological issues, the standard response is to prescribe therapy and psychiatric drugs. A Harvard-based psychologist argues that in many cases what they are experiencing is a healthy reaction to an inhumane experience, and that therapy and drugs isolate them at a time when they most need honest communication with loved ones, neighbors, and co-workers. She gives detailed, practical advice for non-veterans about how to ask the right questions and how to listen, both so veterans will be able to share what they’ve been through and so the society that sent them into battle will have a better understanding of the wars’ realities.


Work Song
By Ivan Doig
Riverhead, 2010

In the tall tale style of the Old West, this novel describes Butte, Montana, right after World War I. A newcomer to town unwillingly gets caught up in the ongoing battle between Anaconda Copper Co. and its union miners.


Working the Night Shift
By Reena Patel
Stanford University, 2010

Call centers in India are staffed primarily by women who work at night to accommodate the time difference with the U.S. and other countries. This academic study explores the social impacts.



Araya, 2011

A recently restored, stunningly visual, black-and-white documentary from 1959 shows the daily lives of families on a remote peninsula in Venezuela, where for four hundred fifty years the only way to make a living besides catching fish was to collect, stack, and ship salt from the sea.


Benavides Born, 2011

A Mexican-American student on a girls’ high school powerlifting team desperately tries to earn an athletic scholarship so she can afford to go to the University of Texas. This feature film shows how poverty and racism limit the options she and her friends and family members have despite all their best efforts.


Budrus, 2009

When Israel began constructing a barbed wire “separation barrier” on Palestinian land, olive trees that villagers depended upon for their livelihood were uprooted. As this documentary shows, Palestinians decided to mount a campaign of nonviolent resistance, blocking bulldozers with their bodies. In a break from cultural traditions, women took an active part in the demonstrations. The protesters were joined by hundreds of supporters from Israel. Israel eventually was forced to reroute some of the barrier so it would not intrude on Palestinian land, but the dispute continues.


Hot Coffee, 2011

Americans are losing the right to get justice in the courts as a result of a coordinated campaign by corporate interests and their political allies. This exceptional film tells four stories about individuals who exemplify these attacks on our legal rights. One is the woman who sued McDonald’s after being severely burned by coffee heated to an unsafe temperature—a case many Americans have heard of and few understand. Another is a female employee of Halliburton in Iraq who was raped by fellow employees in a male barracks where she was required to live. She was blocked from suing until recently because of a requirement in her employment contract that she abide by mandatory arbitration (with the arbitrator chosen by the company). Such requirements have become standard not only in many workplaces but in the fine print most Americans sign when they acquire consumer products such as phones and credit cards


How to Die in Oregon, 2010

Under Oregon’s Death with Dignity law, terminally ill people can get prescriptions for lethal medications so they control the timing and circumstances of their death. This documentary tells the intimate stories of several people who have used this law, including a fifty-four-year-old woman with incurable liver cancer.


Human Terrain, 2009

When the U.S. military realized around 2005 that it was losing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it brought in sociologists and anthropologists to teach American soldiers about local customs. The filmmakers gained extraordinary access to training programs where young U.S. recruits do roleplaying and use video simulators to practice encounters they are likely to have overseas. The film also features recordings of military units and their embedded social scientists engaged in field operations in Afghanistan. Social scientists who have chosen not to assist the military argue in the film that the wars are misguided to begin with and that programs to encourage soldiers to grow moustaches so they will look more like the locals really miss the point.


Inside Job, 2010

The 2011 Academy Award winner for best documentary explains what Wall Street did that destroyed jobs, put millions out of their homes, and led to massive cuts in schools and other public services. There are a few flaws—it spends too much time on how academic and administration economists are bought off and too little on corporations’ attacks on workers and their unions, for example. But overall it provides a dramatic and understandable account that makes it a great organizing tool.


Louder Than a Bomb, 2010

Six hundred students from sixty high schools in Chicago participate in the largest youth poetry slam in the world. This documentary follows four of the teams from the beginning of the school year through the competition and shows what they learn about themselves and about students from other parts of the city.


SoLa, 2011

An hour-long documentary shows massive destruction of wetlands along the Gulf Coast to serve the interests of the oil and gas industry, and how that greatly increased the damage from Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.


The Big Uneasy, 2010

A good companion film to SoLa, this documentary chronicles the failures of the Army Corps of Engineers that allowed Katrina to destroy whole neighborhoods in New Orleans.


Triangle, 2011

This film reminds us what happens when there are no public safeguards that all corporations must follow. It marks the one hundredth anniversary of the killing of 146 garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York. Ways to prevent such deaths—sprinklers; fire drills; adequate exits, stairways, and elevators—were known at the time but were not required and therefore not provided by the factory owners (who collected their insurance money after the slaughter and resumed business as usual). The deaths led to a new understanding of the need for safety regulations in New York and eventually in the nation as a whole. An unusual feature of this documentary is that virtually all the narration and commentary is provided by descendants of Triangle workers and managers.


Waste Land, 2010

In this Academy Award-nominated documentary, a successful Brazilian artist living in New York goes home to create a major art project in collaboration with garbage pickers who pull recyclable materials out of the world’s largest dump. The film explores many questions about class, sustainability, personal transformation, and the nature of art.


*This column is adapted from World Wide Work, written by Matt Witt, and published eight times a year by the American Labor Education Center, an independent nonprofit that operates www.TheWorkSite. org, a free website that provides downloadable tools and tips for educators and activists.





OUT OF THE MAINSTREAM: Books and Films You May Have Missed


Accountability and White Anti-Racist Organizing
Edited by Bonnie Berman Cushing et al.
Crandall, Dostie & Douglass Books, 2010

White anti-racism organizers talk from personal experience about the complexities of their work in a variety of settings—postKatrina New Orleans, public schools, a faith community, a tenants’ rights campaign, a social services agency, and more. As the editors note, what they all have in common is asking white people, “What are you willing to give up? How uncomfortable are you willing to be? What are you willing to risk?”


An American in Persia: A Pilgrimage to Iran
By Richard A. Kauffman
Cascadia, 2010

A Mennonite theologian reports on his interactions with Iranians and their views of the United States.


Beautiful Rust
By Ken Meisel
Bottom Dog Press, 2010

In this collection of vivid prose poems, a Detroit native writes about his experiences, from childhood to adulthood, in a city where “the churches and the factories, both, have been abandoned by the God they promised us.”


Disaster on the Horizon
By Bob Cavnar
Chelsea Green, 2010

An oil executive who is now a critic of his industry gives his views on how BP’s oil disaster happened in the Gulf and why the government’s response was so inadequate.


By Bernice L. McFadden
Akashic, 2010

This intense historical novel focuses on a black woman who rises to become a successful writer during the Harlem Renaissance.


Greening Modernism
By Carl Stein
W.W. Norton, 2010

An expert explores what it will take to make existing buildings energy efficient. As one example, he compares the sustainability of retrofitting a school building with skylights vs. converting to electricity from solar panels or wind turbines.


Land Sharks
By S.L. Stoner
Yamhill, 2010

The second in an historical mystery series centered around Portland, Oregon, this sequel to Timber Beasts describes the practice of shanghaiing—in which working men were kidnapped and forced to work on ocean-going ships.


Let Freedom Sing
By Vivian B. Kline
Outskirts Press, 2010

In this innovative historical novel, a group of high school students conducts research on the experience of African-Americans in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. The students hope to develop a musical centered on the first Fisk University Jubilee Singers. In the process, they learn about some key historical figures of that time, including Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Mary Todd Lincoln, P.T. Barnum, and many more.


No Space for Further Burials
By Feryal Ali Gauhar
Akashic, 2010

In this dark novel, a U.S. army medic is captured in Afghanistan and held in an asylum for the insane. The author, a journalist from Pakistan who has been imprisoned twice by her own government, tries to capture the insanity and human cost of war.


Postville U.S.A.
Edited by Mark Grey, Michele Devlin, and Aaron Goldsmith
Gemma, 2010

A small town in rural Iowa was home to the nation’s largest kosher meatpacking plant until a raid by federal immigration authorities resulted in the arrest of one-fifth of the town’s residents. Two professors and a former city council member lay out lessons they think other towns should learn from Postville’s experience with diversity.


Seaside Dreams
By Janet Costa Bates and Lambert Davis
Lee & Low, 2010

This charming children’s book focuses on the mutually supportive relationship between a young girl and her grandmother, an immigrant to the U.S. from Cape Verde.


The Verso Book of Dissent
Edited by Andrew Hsiao and Andrea Lim
Verso, 2010

This reference book contains three hundred and twenty-five pages of short quotations drawn from people from all over the world who have challenged the established order, from ancient Egypt to the present day.


War Is a Lie
By David Swanson, 2010

Are U.S. wars fought against evil forces, launched in self-defense, unavoidable, and necessary for our security? The former press secretary for Dennis Kucinich’s 2004 presidential campaign reviews a pattern of official lies about U.S. wars over the past hundred years that continues to this day.


By Nina Revoyr
Akashic, 2010

While a novel, this reads like a very personal and revealing memoir of the childhood years the Japanese-American author spent living with her grandparents in a small town in rural Wisconsin in the early 1970s. The story’s drama builds after an AfricanAmerican couple—one a teacher, one a nurse—moves to the all-white town.



Harvest of Loneliness, 2010

Policymakers in Washington, D.C. continue to consider a so-called “guest worker” program that would bring cheap labor from Mexico and other countries into the U.S., with no right for the workers to become citizens once their temporary work contract is completed. An hour-long documentary, in both English and Spanish versions, reviews the history of the bracero program that fulfilled a similar function from 1942 to 1964. Interviews with former braceros and their families, along with stunning photos gleaned from archival research, reveal the human impact of the temporary worker policy. The film brings the issue up to date, describing how so-called “free trade” agreements have destroyed agriculture in Mexico and forced millions of people to come to the U.S. to find work.


La Mission, 2009

In this feature film full of sympathetic and appealing characters, a tough Latino single father in San Francisco reacts with rage when he discovers that his teenage son is gay. His understanding of his son and of domestic violence evolves through interactions with neighbors, friends, and family.


Made in Dagenham
madeindagenham, 2010

Women who made auto upholstery at a Ford plant in England made history in the late 1960s when they went on strike for pay rates equal to men at similar skill levels. Their struggle, which contributed to passage of their country’s Equal Pay Act, had to overcome threats by Ford to close the plant, as well as indifference on the part of much of the male-dominated union hierarchy. This feature film in the Norma Rae tradition may not always be precise in every historical detail, but it manages to be both entertaining and educational as it shows working people overcoming great odds by taking action together.


Me, Too (Yo, También), 2009

From Spain comes this highly unusual, well-made feature film that focuses on two characters—a thirty-four-year-old man who is the first person with Down Syndrome to graduate from a Spanish university, and an attractive but unhappy woman who is his officemate at his first job. The film carefully dodges predictable clichés as their relationship develops and we learn more about their respective pasts.


Out in the Silence, 2010

Two men living in the Washington, D.C. area placed an announcement of their wedding in the newspaper of the small town of Oil City, Pennsylvania, where one of them was raised. The controversy this caused prompted them to do an hour-long documentary about the situation of gay and lesbian teens and adults in that town. The filmmakers are encouraging organizations in small towns and rural areas across the U.S. to use the film to spark discussion.


Peepli Live, 2010

In this clever satirical film from India, two poor peasants about to lose their land are encouraged to take advantage of a new government program that provides lump-sum payments to the families of small farmers who commit suicide.


Temple Grandin, 2010

The true story of an autistic girl who grew up to be a successful agricultural engineer is told in this effective two-hour feature film that tries to show what the world looks and feels like from her point of view.


The Horse Boy, 2009

This engaging ninety-four-minute documentary was made by the very likeable parents of an autistic American boy who take him to be seen by a shaman in Mongolia. The film combines an open, honest story with gorgeous scenery and a basic introduction to autism.


Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed


13 Bankers
By Simon Johnson and James Kwak
Pantheon, 2010

This book explains in convincing detail how Wall Street destroyed the economy, why elected officials and regulators in both the Bush and Obama administrations failed to take the necessary action, and what ought to be done now.


1877: America’s Year of Living Violently
By Michael A. Bellesiles
The New Press, 2010

1877, like 1968 or 2001, was a year in which events converged to change the course of U.S. history. An historian writes in accessible style about a year of economic depression in which white mobs attacked African-Americans and Mexicans, a national railroad strike headlined a series of major battles between working people and big capital, and the U.S. Army faced stiff resistance from Native Americans.


A Shameful Business
By James A. Gross
Cornell University Press, 2010

Politicians of various stripes occasionally find it useful to decry human rights abuses in other countries. This book details the human rights abuses built into the American workplace, where property rights are consistently valued over workers’ rights.


By Tim Wise
City Lights, 2010

America needs not to “move beyond” race but to adopt innovative public policies that directly address it. Wise gives specific ideas of what those policies might be.


Dreams of Repair 
By Eleanor Rubin
Charta, 2010

As Howard Zinn suggests in his introduction to this collection of works by a longtime printmaker and watercolor artist, Rubin’s art responds to suffering in the world on a life-affirming, emotional level rather than as propaganda.


Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan
By David Wildman and Phyllis Bennis
Olive Branch, 2010

In question-and-answer format, analysts from the United Methodist Church and the Institute for Policy Studies provide essential background on the real reasons for the Bush invasion of Afghanistan and the continuation of the war by President Obama. They also address the question of how the U.S. can bring its involvement to an end.


Green Gone Wrong
By Heather Rogers
Scribner, 2010

Many Americans feel that they are taking meaningful action about climate change by substituting cloth shopping bags for plastic ones or buying organic food. But having real impact requires joining together to win government action to control greenhouse gas emissions, develop and distribute alternative energy, invest in mass transit, encourage sustainable local food production, and address the global wealth gap.


Railroad Noir
By Linda Grant Niemann, with photographs by Joel Jensen
Indiana University Press, 2010

The author provides an unvarnished account of her experiences as one of the first women to serve as a “brakeman” and conductor on American railroads. Her plainspoken description of the pros and cons of the work, as well as the way work life has deteriorated under the management assault of the past few decades, could apply to many other kinds of blue-collar work. Her vignettes are accompanied by stunning photos that capture the drama, isolation, and danger often involved in railroad work.


Seeds of Change
By John Atlas
Vanderbilt University Press, 2010

The president of the National Housing Institute has written an impressively detailed, thoughtful, and honest history of ACORN, from its founding to its recent reorganization forced by right-wing attacks.


Share This!
By Deanna Zandt
Berrett-Koehler, 2010

An experienced progressive activist shares her knowledge and insights about the potential and limits of social networking.


The Autobiography of an Execution
By David R. Dow
Twelve, 2010

A Texas law professor who has handled appeals in more than a hundred death penalty cases provides a powerful personal account of the issues, contradictions, and stresses that his work involves.


The Can Man
By Laura E. Williams and Craig Orback
Lee and Low, 2010

In this children’s book, a young boy watches a neighbor collect cans for survival after becoming homeless because of hard times. The boy gets the idea that he could collect the cans instead, in order to buy a new skateboard. Eventually, the boy learns some lessons about human kindness and


The Climate War
By Eric Pooley
Hyperion, 2010

A veteran journalist describes the inside story of the political fight over climate change legislation, including the role White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel played in delaying and weakening Obama
administration efforts on the issue.


The Crying Tree
By Naseem Rakha
Broadway, 2009
In this masterfully written novel, a fifteen year old Oregon boy is killed at home by a nineteen-year-old intruder. As the legal system takes many years to process the case, the victim’s mother believes that only the execution of the man who killed her son will bring her closure. Over time, she learns
deeper truths about the crime, about herself, and about human connection.


The New Jim Crow
By Michelle Alexander
The New Press, 2010

The civil rights movement challenged employment and housing discrimination, the denial of voting rights, and access to education. Today, millions of people of color are denied basic rights because they are in jail or are convicted felons. A law professor and former ACLU attorney documents how mass incarceration has become a new legal form of Jim Crow—and asks why progressive Americans, including traditional civil rights groups, are doing so little about it.


The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell
By Jamie Court
Chelsea Green, 2010

A consumer activist shares his thoughts about issue campaigning. One of his themes is that the key to victory often is to force a more powerful opponent into making a mistake you can exploit.


When Chicken Soup Isn’t Enough 
Edited by Suzanne Gordon
Cornell University Press, 2010

Seventy registered nurses, most of them in the U.S., tell briefly about times they have challenged obstacles to providing quality patient care. Most of these vignettes involve individual action such as confronting a doctor or administrator.


Yasmin’s Hammer
By Ann Malaspina and Doug Ghayka
Lee and Low, 2010
A girl in Bangladesh yearns to go to school, but her family’s survival depends on the income she makes working in a brickyard. This children’s story gently explores conditions and dilemmas that are unfamiliar to many Americans.



8: The Mormon Proposition, 2010

A former Mormon evangelist who is now a journalist directed this seventy-eight minute documentary about how the Mormon Church drove the initiative campaign in California that took away the right of gays and lesbians to marry. The film says the Mormons plowed $30 million into the campaign through front groups, while bringing in canvassers from Utah who were instructed not to wear white shirts and ties that would identify their affiliation. Interviewees include a gay descendant of one of the church’s original founders.


Citizen Architect, 2010

An hour-long film portrays an Auburn University program that gives architecture students a chance to work closely with poor communities in rural Alabama to find innovative solutions to meet their housing needs.


Entre Nos,2009

An immigrant from Colombia raised her two children alone in the U.S., supporting them by collecting cans from the city’s garbage. Now, her daughter and another filmmaker have collaborated to tell her
story in an eighty-two minute tearjerker.


Frozen Dreams, 2010

One hundred and sixty immigrant workers at a Del Monte food packing plant in Oregon were detained in a federal raid. Some of them tell their story in this thirty-minute film, which also includes
footage showing why immigrant workers come to the U.S. in the first place.


Obselidia, 2010
In this entertaining ninety-seven-minute feature, shot in L.A. and Death Valley, a librarian spends his off hours compiling an encyclopedia of obsolete things as he mourns the rapid disappearance of American cultural traditions. He also studies the deadly effects of climate change, which he learns may already be irreversible. After he interviews a silent movie theater projectionist for his book, the two strike up a friendship and help each other find joy and beauty in an increasingly troubled world.


Reel Injun, 2009

In this eighty-eight-minute documentary, a Cree filmmaker makes fun of the way stereotypes about native peoples have been created or reinforced by portrayals in Hollywood movies through the years.


The Most Dangerous Man in America, 2009

Daniel Ellsberg risked life in prison to leak secret Pentagon documents showing the government’s deception about the Vietnam War. This ninety-four-minute documentary dramatically raises the question of why a few individuals go against the tide and challenge the powerful despite the likely personal cost.

Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed


Between Barack and a Hard Place
By Tim Wise
City Lights, 2009

In 150 pages, one of the best white voices talking to other whites about racism comments on what Obama’s election does and does not mean.


Breakthrough Communities
Edited by M. Paloma Pavel
MIT Press, 2009

Activists from around the U.S. have been working on the interconnected issues of the economy, the environment, and equity on a metropolitan basis, seeking new solutions for urban, suburban, and exurban communities on such subjects as housing, transportation, land use, and employment. Thirty-three chapters share experiences from various metro areas.


Bricks Without Straw
By Albion W. Tourgée
Duke University Press, 2009

This reprint of a novel published in 1880 is accompanied by a useful historical essay about the author and the Reconstruction period the book depicts. The book shows the human impact of the often violent campaign by the white power structure in the South to undo emancipation.


Gold Dust on His Shirt
By Irene Howard
Between the Lines, 2009

This warm account of Scandinavian immigrant mining families in Western Canada in the first half of the twentieth century draws on the author’s own family memories, as well as archives and interviews in North America, Norway, and Sweden.


Healing Together
By Thomas A. Kochan, Adrienne E. Eaton, Robert B. McKersie, and Paul S. Adler
Cornell University Press, 2009

Intense labor-management conflict at Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest Health Maintenance Organization, led to a partnership agreement covering more than ninety thousand employees that has lasted more than a decade. Four academics were given access to document and analyze the experience. Both those who support and those who oppose such partnerships on ideological grounds will find fodder for their views in this detailed account.


Invisible Hands
By Kim Phillips-Fein
W.W. Norton, 2009

After President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal made historic changes in the American economic and political system, the DuPont family and other businessmen began a counterattack that culminated decades later in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Such businessmen have been the invisible hands behind what is called the conservative movement.


Organizing the Curriculum
Edited by Rob Linné, Leigh Benin, and Adrienne Sosin
Sense Publishers, 2009

These eighteen essays include some innovative, practical ideas and perspectives about teaching the U.S. labor movement in public schools.


Remembering Scottsboro
By James A. Miller
Princeton University Press, 2009

Death sentences given to eight young black men in 1931 became a major historical event that impacted American arts and culture, as well as politics, and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement.


The Looting of America
By Les Leopold
Chelsea Green, 2009

For those who want more than a vague sense that we are in an economic crisis because of manipulation by Wall Street, Leopold goes into the details about the financial industry’s complex schemes that came crashing down on the rest of us.


The Quality of Home Runs
By Thomas P. Carter
Duke University Press, 2009

Politics, culture, and history are mixed in this study of baseball in Cuba.


Tours of Vietnam
By Scott Laderman
Duke University Press, 2009

What first appears to be a narrow academic study—how U.S. guide books and other tourist materials over the past half-century have described Vietnam—becomes an interesting window into Americans’ often inaccurate perceptions about our own country and the rest of the world.



Ask Not, 2008

More than twelve thousand men and women have lost their jobs in the military under the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, including many who speak Arabic or have other vital skills that are in short supply. This seventy-three-minute film tells some of their stories. It also recounts how President Clinton considered segregating gay soldiers in separate units, similar to the blacks-only units that existed until President Truman issued an executive order ending the practice.


Everlasting Moments, 2008

This beautifully made Swedish film, set in a working-class community in the early 1900s, focuses on the wife of a longshoreman who finds her own identity with the help of an old camera and a photography store owner.


Inventing L.A., 2009

By tracing the history of the Chandler family that founded the Los Angeles Times, this 116-minute PBS documentary also tells important parts of the history of Southern California, including decades of fierce anti-union campaigns and manipulation of politicians and public resources for personal gain. The film also describes the internal battles between ultraconservative and relatively liberal family members that led to the paper’s rapid decline.


Journey of a Red Fridge, 2007

More than sixty thousand children in Nepal make their living as porters, carrying backpacks and supplies for tourists or transporting goods in a region in which there are few good roads or vehicles. This fifty-four-minute documentary focuses on one of them.


Kick Like a Girl, 2008

A soccer team of third-grade girls in Utah can’t find adequate competition against other girls’ teams and decides to enter the boys’ league instead. The twenty-four-minute film follows their season and the reactions of girls, boys, and parents.


On Paper Wings, 2008

During World War II, Japanese girls were assigned to fold paper for huge balloon bombs that were floated to America. One of the bombs killed a young woman and four children near the rural town of Bly, Oregon. A half-century later, some of the now-grown Japanese women traveled to Bly to meet relatives and friends of those who were killed. Some of the hosts talk about the concentration camp for Americans of Japanese descent that was operated during the war, a short distance from Bly. The film also includes file footage of the massive destruction caused by U.S. firebombing and the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan, although it doesn’t show Americans traveling to Hiroshima or Nagasaki to express their sorrow.


Prom Night in Mississippi, 2008

Even after a high school in Charleston, Mississippi was integrated, white families continued to hold a separate senior prom. Actor Morgan Freeman, who comes from Charleston, offered to pay for a prom in 2008—if it was integrated. The school accepted, but problems remained. The story provides an opportunity to explore racial attitudes today.


Short Term 12, 2008

This dramatic, powerfully acted short takes viewers inside a residential facility for abused children, and brings both staff and residents to life.


Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, 2009

Since 1940, the Oklahoma State Penitentiary has held an annual rodeo in which inmates compete, to the delight of thousands of spectators. Since 2006, female inmates have been allowed to take part. Many of them are young mothers, separated from their families because of drug-related crimes. The rodeo poses the real possibility of lifelong injury, especially for these amateurs with only minimal training, but both women and men participate to relieve the intense boredom of prison life. This two-hour, heartbreaking documentary introduces some of them, and in the process provides a poignant portrait of the inhumanity of the U.S. prison system.


The Philosopher Kings, 2009

This seventy-minute film profiles eight janitors at various U.S. colleges who have persevered despite serious obstacles in their lives. Service workers like these are often invisible to those they serve. The film shows that they are people with pride in their work, wisdom learned from hard experience, and determination to get the most out of life. It leaves to other films questions about why they receive only poverty wages and how people like them have joined together to improve their situation.


Upstream Battle, 2008

The death of nearly seventy thousand adult salmon in the Klamath River in 2002 focused attention on a conflict over water rights involving Native Americans, Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp, ranchers, farmers, and commercial fishermen. While this ninetyseven-minute film tells the story from the tribes’ point of view, other participants have their say in candid interviews as well.

*This column is adapted from World Wide Work, written by Matt Witt, and published eight times a year by the American Labor Education Center, an independent nonprofit that operates, a free website that provides downloadable tools and tips for educators and activists.

New Labor Forum 19(1): 118-121, Winter 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.191.0000017


Out of the Mainstream: Books and Films You May Have Missed


Can They Do That?
By Lewis Maltby
Portfolio, 2009

Unless workers have a union, constitutional rights generally stop at the workplace door. In most cases, it is legal for companies to fire or discipline workers for their political views or their private lifestyle. Increasingly, corporations test applicants for genetic diseases or seek personal psychological profiles before making hiring decisions. Some employers use the Global Positioning System capacity of company-issued cell phones to track workers’ activities during off hours. The U.S. frequently criticizes human rights violations in other countries, but maintains a system of employment law that allows corporations to trample on workers’ fundamental rights every day.


Cesar Chavez: A Photographic Essay
By Ilan Stavans
Cinco Puntos, 2010

Chavez’s role in United Farm Workers organizing is recounted using photos and a small amount of text aimed mainly at young people.


Ending the U.S. War in Afghanistan
By David Wildman and Phyllis Bennis
Olive Branch, 2010

In question-and-answer format, analysts from the United Methodist Church and the Institute of Policy Studies provide essential background on the real reasons for the Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and the continuation of the war by President Obama. They also address the question of how the U.S. can bring its involvement to an end.


Everything but the Coffee
By Bryant Simon
University of California Press, 2009

This thoughtful, in-depth study of Starbucks and its customers concludes that Americans want what the company claims it offers—community, fair treatment of workers and food producers, and protection of the environment—but the author questions whether consuming the products of big corporations like Starbucks actually yields those outcomes.


By Gardiner Harris
Minotaur, 2010

A mystery novel by the public health reporter for the New York Times shines a light on corporate and governmental abuses in the coal industry.


If the Church Were Christian
By Philip Gulley
HarperOne, 2010

A Quaker minister suggests that if churches more closely followed Jesus’s values and teachings, they would focus more on inclusion rather than exclusion, reconciliation rather than judgment, meeting needs rather than maintaining institutions, and inviting questions rather than insisting on rigid answers.


If We Can Change the White House, We Can Change the Hog House
By Gene Bruskin, 2010

In a twenty-page, pocket-size booklet, the former director of the successful campaign to win a union contract for mostly Latino and African-American workers at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in North Carolina tells the story in the form of a rap-style poem.


Mothers’ Work and Children’s Lives
By Rucker C. Johnson, Ariel Kalil, and Rachel E. Dunifon
Upjohn Institute, 2009

Welfare reform under President Clinton was supposed to help children by pushing their mothers into the workforce. More than a decade later, studies show that children generally do benefit when their mothers are provided work with good wages and consistent hours, but suffer increased behavioral problems and poor performance in school if their mothers are pressured to work irregular hours in unstable, low-wage jobs.


Moving Millions
By Jeffrey Kaye
Wiley, 2010

A former reporter for PBS NewsHour shows that the changes in immigration policy that are being discussed by national leaders do not address the underlying reasons that cause people to emigrate in the first place, including poverty and powerlessness and the hunger of multinational corporations for cheap and exploitable labor.


NAFTA and Labor in North America
By Norman Caulfield
University of Illinois Press, 2009

Twenty years after the beginning of the negotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, workers in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada all are worse off. Traditional union strategies based primarily on affecting national trade policies have proven to be inadequate in a global economy in which capital knows no boundaries.


On a Dollar a Day
By Christopher Greenslate and Kerri Leonard
Hyperion, 2009

Two California high school teachers decide to limit their food budget to the dollar a day on which many of the world’s people exist. Then, they try the federal government’s official Thrifty Food Plan for people on food stamps. In the process, they explore a range of fundamental issues about food and justice.


Revolt on Goose Island
By Kari Lydersen
Melville House, 2009

A sit-down strike by workers at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago, in December 2008, became a symbol of working people’s frustration with the increasing gap in wealth and power in America. A Washington Post reporter was on the scene and makes the story come alive.


Teaching What Really Happened
By James W. Loewen
Teachers College Press, 2010

The author of Lies My Teacher Told Me provides a guide for students, parents, and teachers who want to analyze class and racial bias in how history is taught in most American schools. The book applies that perspective to such topics as the “conquest” of North America, slavery, the Civil War, and race relations today


The Sound of Water
By Sanjay Bahadur
Atria International, 2009

This short novel about coal miners in India tells a very human story while conveying the author’s cynical view of that country’s hierarchical and bureaucratic culture.


Timber Beasts
By S.L. Stoner
Yamhill Press, 2009

This entertaining mystery novel is set against the background of the struggles between timber workers and big logging interests in the early 1900s.



Garbage Dreams, 2009

In Cairo, sixty thousand people made their living collecting the city’s garbage and recycling 80 percent of it. Now, foreign firms have been brought in by the government to do the work instead. They use modern equipment but recycle only about 20 percent of the waste.


No Impact Man, 2009

An unusually honest, fun, and thought-provoking ninety-minute documentary follows a New York couple that conducts a year-long demonstration project in sustainable living. They do without petroleum-powered transportation, disposable packaging, food that is not produced locally, electronic conveniences, and more. In the process, they discover that living without a focus on television and consumer culture opens the door to more quality family time and community relationships.


Objectified, 2009

In this wide-ranging seventy-six-minute documentary, cutting-edge designers of consumer goods from around the world show how they do their work. They also talk about being caught between corporations’ short-term profit motive and their own desire to design sustainable products that serve the needs of the great majority of humanity that is not wealthy.


On the Road to Tel-Aviv, 2008

A brilliant fifteen-minute short shows Israeli Jews getting on a bus not long after another bus was blown up by suicide bombers. An Arab woman carrying a large bag gets on the bus, and the passengers panic. The story provides a good starting point for discussion about profiling and about actions individuals will take when in a group seized by fear.


Outrage, 2009

This hard-hitting eighty-nine-minute film focuses on closeted gay politicians who cynically take strong stands against gay and lesbian rights. One who is featured is Florida Governor Charlie Crist. The film discusses Crist’s history of having gay relationships, carrying out anti-gay policies, and suddenly acquiring a female partner during election campaigns, only to “break up” once the votes are counted.


The Coca-Cola Case, 2009

This eighty-five-minute documentary follows a campaign, supported by U.S. unions, to hold Coca-Cola legally accountable for the murder of union leaders and activists in Colombia,


The Solitary Life of Cranes, 2008

This twenty-seven-minute documentary provides unusual footage showing what crane operators see from high above London, although it lacks a focus on the work they actually do.

*This column is adapted from World Wide Work, written by Matt Witt, and published eight times a year by the American Labor Education Center, an independent nonprofit that operates, a free website that provides downloadable tools and tips for educators and activists.

New Labor Forum 19(3): 49-50, Fall 2010
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/10 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.193.0000008