MOVIES : Without the Union Label : Barbara Kopple told the story of ‘Harlan County, USA’ in black-and-white terms, but with ‘American Dream,’ about a strike that put a union local in conflict with its international, as well as the company, the coloring is gray


In 1977, documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple released a movie called “Harlan County, U.S.A.” that chronicled a strike against a power company by coal miners in eastern Kentucky. A longtime advocate of the American labor movement, Kopple shaped the happenings in Harlan County into a stirring David and Goliath story that found her clearly on the side of the workers.

Her film won an Academy Award and is regarded as a classic documentary work, so when Kopple showed up in Austin, Minn., in 1984 to make a film about a strike that pitted the meatpacking division of the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union in the one-company town against the $77.1 million-a- year food conglomerate Hormel, (the 17th most profitable food company in America), the Austin workers assumed their story would be told in a manner similar to that of “Harlan County.” That, however, proved to be impossible.

The years that followed the Harlan County strike of the mid-’70s had seen devastating change in both the American workplace and the labor movement. The days when America dominated the international auto industry--and several other major export markets--were receding ever further into the past. Reaganomics dealt a severe blow to American unions, which were torn by internal dissent and had seen membership drop from a peak of 35.5% of the work force in 1945 to 16.1% in 1990. Technology was overtaking the assembly line and steadily diminishing the number of blue-collar jobs available.


So, when Hormel rolled back wages from $10.69 to $8.25 in 1984 (a year when the company declared more than $29.5 million in profits) and its workers went on strike, the union members were trying to make a system work that was in crisis.

The meatpackers’ strike didn’t work either. The international union refused to support the strike by its local P-9 in Austin, hundreds of people lost their jobs, and the town was bitterly divided. Three books have been written about the controversial strike, each taking a completely different point of view, so it’s not surprising that “American Dream,” the film Kopple made about it that opens in Los Angeles on Friday, is the subject of heated debate. Though the film, which premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1990, has already won numerous awards, including the 1991 Academy Award for best feature documentary, several of the principal players in the strike consider it an inaccurate telling of the events in Austin that cops out on several key points.

“I was very disappointed in the film for several reasons,” says Jim Guyette, who was president of the Austin union local during the strike. “Barbara shows the sequence of events out of order so it gives one a confused understanding of how the strike unfolded.

“What’s worse is that the viewer is left with the impression we were on strike over a few cents per hour, but the issue was really working conditions,” continues Guyette, who was unable to get a job in Minnesota after the strike and presently works for a labor union in New York. “The meatpacking industry has a 202% injury rate every year--that means that all workers suffer more than one injury per year--and while we were willing to compromise on money, we felt we couldn’t compromise on safety.”

Adds Ray Rogers, a nationally known labor leader who was hired by the Austin union to devise a strategy for their strike: “The film also falls apart in that it doesn’t hold the international union accountable for the role it played in squashing the strike. I’ve been around the labor movement a long time but I’ve never seen the labor hierarchy make such a commitment to undermining workers as they did with P-9. They spent millions trying to destroy the P-9 leadership and Barbara never shows the viciousness they resorted to.

“Barbara is not naive--she omitted that stuff because of a lack of courage,” says Rogers, who also feels Kopple’s film paints an unflattering portrait of him as “a huckster” and presents Guyette as weak and ineffective.


“Barbara left those issues out because she wants to make more union films and she was under tremendous pressure from the union hierarchy, “ concludes Guyette. “Both the international and Hormel are very happy with the film, and that says a lot to me.”

Guyette’s last comment isn’t entirely accurate. Allan Krejci, director of public relations for Hormel says “we’re unable to comment because after repeated tries, we’ve been unsuccessful in obtaining a copy of the film.”

When all these comments are relayed to Kopple during an interview at a West Hollywood hotel, she sighs, then smiles and addresses them one by one.

“It’s true we didn’t send Hormel a print of the film--we can’t afford to send a print to everyone who expresses an interest,” says Kopple. “But we gave them the schedule of all festivals where the film was being screened. And, Charles Nyberg, the executive vice president of Hormel, attended the screening at the New York Film Festival. I haven’t prevented them from seeing the film.

“It’s untrue the international put any pressure on me--I’ve made many films about unions and have never asked for their permission. It probably is a big flaw in the film that it doesn’t deal with the injury rate,” she concedes, “because that is a very important issue.

“But, at the heart of these criticisms is the fact that we have a different understanding of what the purpose of this film is,” Kopple says. “Ray Rogers is an incredible person and the labor movement is lucky to have a guy with the great courage and heart he has, but this film wasn’t designed just to tell Ray Rogers’ story. Ray thought the film would be the story of the P-9 strike, but I was trying to do something larger than decide who was right or wrong in Austin. I think they were all right and were all victims of economic policies that are wrecking the social fabric of this country.

“The villain in this story is a systemic one that’s turned the American dream upside down,” she continues. “Let’s face it--we’re not in a recession, we’re in a depression and people are feeling its effect everywhere. I recently showed this film at a festival in Japan, and after the screening a Japanese man came up to me and smiled and said, ‘ Your American dream is now our American dream.’ ”

In Los Angeles from her home in New York City to attend the L.A. Film Critics Awards (where “American Dream” took the prize for best documentary), Kopple seems a little hurt but not surprised by the criticisms leveled against her film, which took her five years to make and left her “in debt to the skies--there’s no chance I’ll ever make any money on this film either,” she reports with cheerful stoicism. Kopple clearly accepted long ago that when you make films about volatile real-life subjects you have to take your lumps.

Now 43, Kopple is an interesting blend of contradictory qualities. One has only to look at the films she’s made to know that she’s a highly idealistic woman with a will of iron, but in person she comes across as sweet and a little bit innocent. Her guileless demeanor no doubt came in handy when she requested permission to film the union negotiations engendered by the Austin strike--a privilege that had never previously been granted to anyone (even tape recorders are forbidden at union meetings). An unusual aspect of the film is that it shows Kopple having won the trust of all the different warring factions involved in the strike: She developed warm relations with scabs who crossed the picket line, international union bosses, leaders of the P-9 strike and spouses of the workers.

“The strike in Harlan County was a black-and-white situation but there were a million shades of gray to this story,” says Kopple. “It was more complex and had many more layers, and making this film was like walking on broken glass because in trying to show several divergent points of view, I spent time with all these groups--and consequently, they all questioned whose side I was on. It would’ve been much easier to do the film the way I did ‘Harlan County,’ but I chose to do it in a hard way that wouldn’t be popular.

“And in doing that I discovered a story becomes much more powerful when you show all the different points of view,” she continues. “For instance, there’s a scene of a bunch of guys--a few of whom are crying--trying to decide whether or not to cross the picket line. When I did ‘Harlan County’ I wouldn’t have dreamed of filming people who were contemplating crossing a picket line--it wouldn’t have occurred to me to film that because I had no respect for anybody who’d do that. But filming these people in Austin gave me a tremendous amount of understanding for the turmoil they’re in. I don’t condone crossing a picket line, but I have a better understanding of why people decide to do that.”

(Of these weeping scabs, Jim Guyette says “those guys ought to get an Oscar for their performance. Barbara doesn’t mention that those men were the old leadership of the P-9 union who’d been voted out of office and that the union was giving them money to cross the picket line.” Kopple says she has no knowledge of the union paying men to cross the picket line.)

Conspicuously absent from Kopple’s film is the Hormel management, but that’s somehow appropriate; the Austin strike is really the story of the fight between P-9 and the international union, which refused to support the Austin workers.

“This was an officially sanctioned strike,” Ray Rogers says. “However, the international was run by a morally bankrupt leadership that couldn’t allow P-9 to win a major victory when they’d failed so miserably to protect the wages and benefits of the workers.”

Kopple sees it differently. “P-9 was striking to get a wage reinstated that was far above what the average American meatpacker makes and I think the international felt strikers should go after lower-wage companies first--you don’t start at the top. I think they were also concerned that if every local started acting on its own the entire union would fall apart.” In her handling of this issue, Kopple suggests that the international was in a no-win situation, and hence her portrait of the union brass is fairly sympathetic. This aspect of the film angers Rogers and Guyette deeply, but Louie Anderson, who was vice president and chief negotiator for the international during the strike, feels differently.

“I think this is a great film, very powerful and moving,” says Anderson, who was fired from his job with the international after the strike and presently works for a reform movement within the UFCW that’s attempting to democratize the union. “I know some people are unhappy with it, but I think it’s extremely accurate. My sense is that Barbara wasn’t interested in taking sides, but rather was trying to show that we’re all experiencing an attack on American values, and this is especially true for the working class. This is a film about people caught in a system that’s grinding them up, and I think it’s unfortunate that some people are judging it from a shallow, narrow point of view. This film raises much more profound questions than who was right or wrong in Austin.”

Indeed, in the final analysis, “American Dream” portrays a larger tragedy; the increasing obsolescence of a way of life and a belief system that’s worked well for Americans in this century but is now betraying those who put their faith in it. The Austin strike ended with the international ousting the renegade leaders of the P-9 union and making its own settlement with Hormel--a settlement that included agreeing to a wage of $10.25 (a 49-cent cut) and making no allowance for restoring jobs to those who’d honored the picket line. (The fact that it’s legal for management to hire permanent replacements for striking workers essentially means that it’s impossible for workers to win a strike. The issue of permanent replacements will be reviewed by Congress this year.)

A short time after the strike, Hormel subleased its factory to a company that paid workers only $6.50 an hour--thus erasing any lingering doubt as to who was running the show in Austin.

Despite this resounding defeat, Kopple feels the story of “American Dream” is a positive one.

“The strikers lost this particular battle but they were significantly changed by the experience of the strike. They stood up for something and responded to a difficult situation with resiliency and courage and that’s something they’ll always carry with them. I found it so moving watching these people grow and do things they’d never done before--what came out of this film is much more powerful than what I was looking for when I began it. I showed the film in Austin on Memorial Day to an audience of 1,500 and after the screening several people told me the film is going to start to heal the community. Hearing that really meant a lot to me.”

As to what she plans to do next, Kopple says, “I don’t want to make any more union films--they’re too hard on me! I’m preparing to do a film about love and relationships--it’s not a documentary and will be very much a ‘90s film.”

This isn’t to suggest Kopple’s experiencing a failure of nerve. She’s also planning to do a documentary on racism and is contemplating making a film based on “JFK in Viet Nam,” the new book by John Newman. She also recently completed a documentary on Jim Garrison that will be shown with Oliver Stone’s “JFK” in Europe, and “Out of Darkness,” a 100-year history of the United Mine Workers. These projects are all in keeping with the philosophy of committed and involved filmmaking that’s guided Kopple’s career from the start.

Born in New York City and raised in Scarsdale, Kopple attributes her strong sense of social conscience to the fact that “I had a liberal upbringing and my family gave me a tremendous amount of love and understanding.” Citing “Marat/Sade” and “The Battle of Algiers” as the first films that made an impression on her--”I was so moved by the passion of those people and their willingness to risk everything for freedom”--she discovered her affinity for filmmaking while studying psychology at Northeastern University in Boston.

“I went to a school that required you to work for six months in the field you were studying, so I worked at a place called Medfield State Hospital, which had given a lot of people lobotomies,” she recalls. “Rather than write a paper, I decided to do a short film about the hospital and from that moment on I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker.”

After graduating in 1968, Kopple moved to New York and landed a job assisting documentary filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, whom she says “taught me everything about filmmaking from the ground up” when she worked with them on “Gimme Shelter.” In 1971, she made her debut film, “People’s Tribunal,” a documentary of the Attica prison riots, and the following year founded her independent production company Cabin Creek Films, which continues to be her base of operations in New York. Kopple also directed “Keeping On,” a portrait of Southern textile workers; “Winter Soldier,” a documentary in which Vietnam veterans testify about their torture of the Vietnamese; and “No Nukes,” which Kopple co-directed with Haskell Wexler.

“The kind of filmmaking I do revolves around my ability to immerse myself within a community, to live there and operate sort of like an anthropologist,” says Kopple in describing her work. “I believe the people I make films about have something important to say and in order to communicate their point of view I have to get down and penetrate as deeply as I can. Making films like this you develop long relationships with people and they become friends--I never said I was objective,” she admits. “I never consciously edit my material in a subjective way, but I’m not a journalist and I have very definite feelings and passions about the people I film--if I didn’t, I couldn’t do this work. My emotional involvement with these people is what gives me the drive to make these films.”