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04.22.09

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Phaedra

Don't mask, don't tell: 'The Corporation,' which screens this Saturday at the Quaker Meeting House, examines capitalism's undue influence in America.

For Love of Labor

The Reel Work Film Festival highlights workers who refuse to accept the short end of the stick--downturn or not.

By Jessica Lussenhop


The workers at Republic Windows and Doors were doing a lot more than twiddling their thumbs during their six-day occupation of the Chicago factory where they'd been abruptly laid off two weeks before this past Christmas. Sure, they were playing cards and dominoes, but according to filmmaker Andrew Freund, who premieres the rough cut of his film about the incident, titled Workers' Republic, at the Eighth Annual Reel Work Film Festival on Friday, it was a lot more than a waiting game. "There was a lot of political conversation going on," he says. "When you have a militant issue like this, it makes people think about hope and what can be done outside of the norm."

Freund arrived on the scene as a reporter for Labor Beat, a nonprofit, pro-labor news organization, after word got out that employees were refusing to leave the factory. The workers, of Local 1110 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, had been laid off with only three days' notice and no promise of severance pay, benefits or compensation for accrued vacation days, all violations of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act. When Republic blamed Bank of America for cutting its loans off, months after the bank's $25 billion TARP bailout, Republic Windows and Doors became a symbol of everything that was going wrong with the economy. "Once it had begun, it was impossible to be in Chicago and not know about it," says Freund. "Everyone was latching on to this. People were seeing you don't have to take a bad economy lying down."

The screening, at Watsonville City Council Chambers (a city with 25 percent unemployment) and sponsored by the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers (whose district just made $14 million worth of cuts) is one of 24 films being shown in this year's festival, arguably at a time when grassroots labor movements need a morale boost more than ever. Other films include Prostitution: Sex Work or Sexual Exploitation, an investigative documentary featuring interviews with the women, children, pimps and johns; and Winter Soldier: Iraq & Afghanistan, a look at a protest in Washington by Iraq Veterans Against the War wherein soldiers testified about the atrocities they'd witnessed. A sneak peak of The Red Tail follows a former Northwest Airlines mechanic and his daughter to China after his job is outsourced, and Dos Americas: The Reconstruction of New Orleans caps off the festival with a portrait of Post-Katrina Latinos trying to rebuild in the face of wage theft, racial tension and discrimination.

Sunday, May 2, will feature a daylong event at the Live Oak Grange called "Growing Food and Fuel." Visitors will enjoy a vegetarian potluck, artwork displays, music and, of course, films, including Tackling Child Labour in Agriculture, Bracero Stories and Burger King Exposed.

Many screenings feature a post-presentation talk by filmmakers or the subjects themselves. Andrew Freund will be joined after Workers' Republic by a couple of the plant workers featured in the documentary, who will discuss what it was like to take on their company and the role of labor in these dark economic days. "[The Great Depression] gets talked about a lot as we move into this new economic crisis. What doesn't get talked about is that people at that time were not just waiting for a savior with their hand out. Instead they were organizing," says Freund. "It seems like now, more than ever, grassroots campaigns for social justice are needed again, even though we have a Democratic majority. We can't get complacent." Other events include talks by Santa Cruzans who were at the "Battle in Seattle," SEIU director Nick Steinmeier, and California Federation of Teachers communications director Fred Glass.

In bleak times, the workers at Republic actually managed a happy ending. After the six-day occupation, Bank of America agreed to reinstate the loans necessary to pay the workers their severance, and the workers poured out into the street cheering. A Silicon Valley company actually purchased the window plant, and Freund reports that the workers will likely be reinstated to their positions.

"The lesson they're teaching us is, if they're closing it, you should occupy it," says Freund. "I see organized labor and grassroots organizing as the only way forward. If you look at history, it's the only way history has moved forward."


Movie Times THE REEL WORK 2009 MAY DAY LABOR FILM FESTIVAL runs April 20-May 4. For film times, locations and more information go to www.reelwork.org or call 831.477.1665.


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