MOVIE REVIEW : ‘American Dream’: A Union Nightmare


Nearly a decade in getting seen, “American Dream” couldn’t be more up to date if it were born yesterday. A splendid film and deserving winner of numerous awards, including last year’s Academy Award for best feature documentary, its focus on the smoldering economic fury of working-class Americans adroitly illuminates the reasons for the backlash that politicians of both parties are finding increasingly difficult to ignore.

Though it concentrates on a bitter and protracted 1984 strike at the Hormel & Co. meatpacking plant in Austin, Minn., “American Dream’s” thesis is anything but a simplistic Us-vs.-Them scenario. In fact, the company and its positions almost fade from view in favor of the agonizing and unprecedented battle that took place within the striking union itself, a fight without heroes or villains, only victims.

In fact, though its subtext is passionately political, “American Dream” (at the Ken Cinema, Times rated family) succeeds as well as it does because its true subject is its people. This is above all a thoroughly human story, a tale of euphoric highs and dark lows, of a battle over principle that chillingly turned brother against brother and reduced participants to fistfights, fury and tears.

Director Barbara Kopple could hardly have known things would turn out this dramatically when she began “American Dream,” but no one was better suited to capitalize on the situation as it developed. A veteran documentary director who had already won an Oscar for another labor-themed film, “Harlan County, USA,” Kopple ended up filming for more than two years as the strike by Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union got increasingly bitter and Byzantine.


In many ways, the Hormel plant in bucolic Minnesota seemed like the least likely site for a labor-management inferno. The company’s founders had been of a paternalistic bent, and Austin’s hourly wage of $10.69 was the industry standard. But in 1984, despite profits of $29 million, Hormel announced plans to cut that wage by 23%. “What are we going to have to give up,” one worker worried, “when they show a loss for the quarter?”

Local P-9 President Jim Guyette, concerned that “unions were getting their teeth kicked in,” decided on some unorthodox tactics and brought in Ray Rogers, the charismatic president of Corporate Campaign, a group founded to help unions win strikes by influencing public opinion and putting citizen pressure on banks and other financial institutions.

Rogers lit a fire under P-9, igniting the workers into a passionate burst of union fervor. The only people unconvinced about the efficacy of his tactics, curiously enough, seemed to be the honchos at the international, represented by Lewie Anderson, the director of its meatpacking division.

Savvy and blunt, Anderson serves as a kind of implacable voice of doom in “American Dream,” tirelessly predicting woe after woe for the rebellious local, which was soon at odds with the international over how the strike should be conducted and even if there should be a strike at all.

Clearly trusted by the Rogers-Guyette majority as well as the vocal minority that sided with Anderson and the international (if less so by Hormel, which has relatively little on-camera time), Kopple excels at letting both sides speak their piece, showing how sincere individuals with basically the same aims can disagree so profoundly and with such painful consequences.

More than that, Kopple sees what even the international does not: that in the long run P-9’s struggle had surprisingly little to do with specific strike aims, mercenary or otherwise, but rather with a striving for dignity, for being treated fairly and with respect, an attitude it found lacking not only in Hormel but in its paternalistic international union as well. Seeing working-class Americans standing up for themselves with eloquence and dignity is enough to make you proud, but seeing how futile it finally can be for union members to dream the American dream calls forth a different set of emotions entirely.

‘American Dream’

A Cabin Creek Films production, released by Prestige. Director Barbara Kopple. Producers Kopple and Arthur Cohn. Coordinating producers Peter Miller and Esther B. Cassidy. Camera Peter Gilbert, Kevin Keating, Hart Perry, Mark Petersson, Mathieu Roberts. Editors Cathy Caplan, Tom Haneke, Lawrence Small. Music Michael Small. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Times-rated: Family.