Army of Change
“This election is really important. We are at a moment in time where, if nobody takes anything for granted and people work really, really hard right up to the last minute in November, we really could change things.” Steve Earle’s pronouncement makes clear the essential and frequently repeated point of Labor Day. The presidential campaigns of 2008 gave hope to labor unions, that workers’ needs might be met and their efforts rewarded, that they might “really change things,” if only the Democrats won.
A documentary focused on that hope and the work it inspired, Labor Day ends at the moment when, indeed, the Democrats won. That is, it doesn’t look at today’s unmet needs or lack of rewards. It keeps a tight focus on the recent past, specifically, the experience of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union). With some two million members, the union is the “largest and fastest-growing union in North America,” and also something of a throwback, articulating the similar interests among their members, namely, “nurses, healthcare workers, homecare and childcare workers, janitors, security officers, doormen, and public employees.” All are fundamentally concerned with wages and benefits, worksite conditions, overtime, immigration legislation, and of course, health care reform. And in 2008, the SEIU committed to electing Barack Obama, not just through money donations but also through “boots on the ground” organizing and action.
Glenn Silber and Claudia Vianello’s film is celebratory and then some. It’s not looking to question promises made by the campaign, instead showing rallies and speeches and slogans at face value, most often, “change” is good. The film begins when the Democratic candidates make grand displays of their desire for the Union’s endorsement. They come to speak and supplicate, each spends a day working with an SEIU member (Hillary Clinton follows a nurse around, John Edwards feeds nursing home residents, Obama cleans floors with a homecare worker, etc.). SEIU President Andy Stern describes the sense of “empowerment” this all bestows on members: “We decided we were not gonna force this decision,” he says, thinking back on the days after the on-the-job visits. “So we just kept our powder dry and had them continue to compete for our union members’ support.”
Such competition actually ends pretty quickly, when the candidates come to the members’ convention, instructed explicitly to bring with them a health care plan “that’s comprehensive and universal and a way to pay for it” (“We threw down the gauntlet,” says Stern). Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty moderates, Clinton wows everyone (“She knew it like the back of her hand”), and Obama arrives with nothing much. “We will be putting a very detailed plan on our website,” he tells a member who asks for specifics. Well, yes, as he reminds her, his campaign then is only about eights weeks old. The woman looks hopeful, then wistful. The scene cuts to Jonathan Alter, who notes, “I think it was very smart of SEIU to put all its chips on health care.”
Errr, sort of. The union endorses Obama. And the rest of the movie is essentially a montage of busy-ness: workers moving to swing states like Minnesota and Nevada for the duration, riding on buses, knocking on suburban neighborhood doors, traveling to Denver where Stern is in fact asked to speak. Here Ted Koppel states the obvious (“Labor has not been a top for a long time in this country and I hope that it becomes that story again”) and Dennis Kucinich offers a cliché (“It’s all on the line in this election”), assessments that remind you how tedious soundbites can be.
Similar non-insights are offered by activist celebrities when the documentary stops by fundraising concerts. Tom Morello performs a few seconds of a pro-union song before the film cuts to his standard-issue exhortation, “We are at an historic juncture and it can get worse. But in order for it to get better, you can’t just cast your ballot into the void every four years, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. You have to keep struggling for the kind of world that you want to see.”
The repetition is alleviated for a moment when Anna Burger, SEIU’s International Secretary-Treasurer, remembers that the scare brought on by Sarah Palin. As shots of Republican rallies show enthusiastic crowds, Burger says, “I was anxious. Then the economy fell apart.” Well, thank goodness.
A useful record of an historical moment—when American laborers felt effective, appreciated and rewarded—Labor Day today might also serve as a spur for those elected to reform health care.