Ep 164: Labor Union Depictions in Hollywood (Part I): From Demonized to Ignored or Mafia Plot Cliche

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Chances are you’ve seen this storyline play out on either a big or small screen: An FBI agent investigates a prominent labor leader. Or maybe a union boss orders a hit on a recalcitrant member of the rank-and-file. Or perhaps a union president skims money off a pension fund to make an illegal loan. Plotlines like these derive from one of Hollywood’s longstanding and most favored tropes: the corrupt, mobbed up union, and more specifically, the corrupt union boss. It lends itself to countless stories: The rise and fall of a Mafia-backed labor head, the rebellion of rank-and-file workers against their tyrannical leadership, the precarious union on the verge of implosion. Accordingly, over and over again, we’ve seen stories of labor unions entangled with extortion, bribery, blackmail, theft and murder. But, even if union bosses can make compelling characters, why is it that they must all be corrupt mafiosi? Why is it that heroism in pop culture is overwhelmingly the domain of police, attorneys and doctors and hardly ever people fighting for labor rights and the collective power of their co-workers and communities? Why, instead of highlighting the courage of labor organizers and the life-changing protections won, must Hollywood repeatedly emphasize only unions’ historical ties to organized crime and a seamy underbelly of corruption, murder and intrigue? On this show, part one of a two-part episode on labor depictions in Hollywood, we explore organized labor and unions in film and television, how these pop depictions inform broader public sentiment about unions. And next week, we’ll discuss some of the more positive portrayals of labor and unionism in film and television. Our guest is writer and organizer Ken Margolies.

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