By sheer coincidence, I have recently watched three films with a trade union/solidarity theme. I should more accurately say two and a half because one, a Ken Loach film called ‘Bread and Roses’, was so full of trite clichés that I was forced to abandon it half way through. Don’t misunderstand me; the politics in the film was spot on, as is invariably the case with Loach films. No, the problem was not the politics but the banal and lecturing manner in which he invariably approaches his work. (The Wind That Shakes the Barley being a notable exception). No nuances, no inner tensions, no unresolvable paradoxes. Predictably with your average Ken Loach offering, it is ninety minutes of the forces of good versus the forces of reaction with no shades of grey for the audience to wrestle with. If only life was so clear cut and simple. Of the other two films, ‘Pride’ and ‘Two Days and One Night’, the former sadly fell fairly and squarely into the Ken Loach school of film making, while the latter was an absolute gem both as a defiant political statement and as a piece of subtle contemporary film making .

Firstly to ‘Pride’. If you were a young gay person watching this film you would likely find it inspiring and uplifting. If you were a young straight person, but one who had managed to rid themselves of archaic homophobic prejudice, you would also likely find this film inspiring and uplifting. But like a typical Loach film, the characters emerged as cardboard cut-outs incapable of holding two contradictory thoughts at the same time. This is a pity because the story, a largely true one, lent itself to all number of such tortured and contradictory positions.

 Solidarity in the labour movement is never an easy ask. The very nature of trade unions, whose task it is to advance the interests of their own members, irrespective of the wider world, mitigates against solidarity. That some level of solidarity was achieved between some mining communities and some gay activists was indeed a remarkable achievement and one worthy of celebrating in film. But the inevitable tensions between these two hitherto separate communities was only ever dealt with in the most superficial way. In the style of a typical feel-good movie, there were the bigots and there were the enlightened ones and after a few predictable twists and turns, the enlightened ones triumphed. And Britain is a much better place for it.

 But if you are going to set out to really tell the story we need to empathise with those who are caught in a moral dilemma. Some deeply Catholic trade union official perhaps, who is desperately trying to adopt enlightened positions while being dragged backwards by a thousand years of church dictated prejudice, might usefully have been at the heart of this film. No such depth nor seriousness was ever contemplated by the makers of this film.  A pity. A wasted opportunity.

In stark contrast to ‘Pride’, ‘Two Days and One Night’ offered its audience much to contemplate. While the theme was still unambiguously human solidarity, the story-line took the audience in all sorts of dark and intriguing places. And every single key character, of which there were many, rang startlingly true to life. Real people with real economic and social concerns. What a joy to watch the drama unfold. The story was starkly simple. Woman, who had been on sick-leave, made redundant after  her fellow workers vote in favour of her redundancy in order to keep their bonus. Surrender the bonus and she can come back to work. What a conundrum for every hard-pressed family to deal with. As one family bluntly put it, the work bonus coincides perfectly with the annual gas and electricity bill. That is a bonus that is not easy to surrender no matter how much solidarity one has for ones fellow worker.

 These sort of painful dilemmas crop up all the time in the workplace, particularly in times of government imposed austerity. As Convenor of Stewards in a very large workplace in the 1980’s I was faced with one such dilemma. The cleaning staff had been privatised and the private company was busy employing an ‘illegal workforce’ in order to drive down wages and conditions. They treated their workforce with utter contempt for both the law and for basic human morality. The shop-steward’s committee was faced with an impossible choice; expose the company, which would inevitable result in the ‘illegals’ losing their desperately needed jobs, or turn a blind eye, thus becoming complicit in not only the exploitation of the privatised cleaning staff, but also in the eroding of bitterly hard won employment conditions. A tricky one.  

Despite my earlier criticisms, all three films are desperately needed in today’s amnesic society. Trades Unions, despite their obvious myopic preoccupation with their own industry, are still probably the most democratic force in British society. All the media hype about unelected union barons is merely a ploy to distract focus away from the real unelected villains of our world, the corporate and banking elites. These capitalist barons have been at their dirty work ever since the dawn of capitalism and the trade unions are a wholly legitimate response to capital’s inhumanity. Remember child labour in Britain in the nineteenth century? It’s still being practised around the globe in the 21st century by our capitalist barons who operate free from all governmental or popular control.

Trade unions are obviously a democratic response to these gangsters but if you were to believe the corporate press, it is the unions who are the enemy of society. A clever ploy indeed. Any film, novel or TV series that can counter this demonization of workplace democracy should be applauded but sadly they are few and far between. Ken Loach, despite his clumsy style of film making, should be congratulated for his never-ending efforts in this respect.

And ‘Pride’, despite its Loachian simplicity, is also a timely reminder of dark days gone by, where the organised working class and the Gay community were demonised in equal measure by a particularly repressive and reactionary government led by a certain Margaret Thatcher. Least we forget.

 

End JPK Copyright 20/9/14

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 21 September 2014 15:05 )