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The Irishman, Hollywood, and America’s hostility to unions

January 2020

Hollywood’s fixation on corruption and criminal personalities in depictions of labor (The Irishman, Hoffa, F.I.S.T.) distorts the historical truth of unions and their power, and undermines our understanding of the goals and struggles of America’s working people. These distortions cement negative stereotypes of unions and their ideals for a new generation of viewers.

Russell Bufalino, prominent  Northeast Pennsylvania  Mafia figure. New York State Archives

The Irishman, Hollywood, and America’s hostility to unions

When Robert De Niro accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award at the recent Screen Actors Guild Awards Ceremony, he told the audience, “I thank SAG-AFTRA for tirelessly fighting on our behalf for workplace and economic gains and respect. And that especially bears remembering these days when there’s so much hostility towards unions.”  It was an ironic statement from the star of the movie, The Irishman, a film which depicts the labor movement as little more than a subsidiary of organized crime.  The fact that the director Martin Scorsese conveys this message in a luscious period piece, with a stellar cast, who turn in remarkable performances, means that this movie actually powerfully reinforces the hostility to unions which De Niro bemoans.  In doing so, The Irishman follows a well tread path in Hollywood, where mainstream film makers have rarely made movies that involved the labor movement.  And when they have done so, Hollywood films have often focused on union corruption, depicting labor leaders as venal, while union members either are ignored, or are depicted as complacent in this corruption.   Thus The Irishman follows in the footsteps of Hoffa (1992) and F.I.S.T (1978); all three are blockbuster movies, with bankable Hollywood stars, that provide a similar treatment of the labor movement’s most notorious union leader, James R. Hoffa, the president of the Teamsters Union. 

In focusing on Hoffa and his organized crime ties, these films do nothing to explain why a third of the American workforce had joined the labor movement by the 1950s, when Hoffa first became president of the nation’s largest union.  Indeed, anyone watching The Irishman would naturally conclude that the only reason for a truck driver to belong to the Teamsters Union was because he knows it will protect him when he steals from his employer.  In this movie, that is the only thing the union, as a union, does.  The only character in the film who describes the goals of the labor movement, to protect workers from exploitation, is the named character’s daughter, Peggy, who does so while making a presentation to her elementary school class.  In this way, the film implies the naiveté of these labor ideals and their lack of connection to the real union movement, whose leaders are without exception (in the film) mob-connected and corrupt.  

The Irishman plays off of a set of negative stereotypes about the labor movement that rose to prominence in the late 1950s, just as Hoffa assumed the presidency of the Teamsters Union and became the focus of a series of Congressional hearings, an episode briefly touched upon in the film.   Led by the young Robert F. Kennedy, the Senate’s Rackets Committee (1957-1959) drew enormous public attention to the misconduct and mob-ties of leaders in a handful of unions, most notably the Teamsters.  In doing so the Rackets Committee provided support for efforts to curtail a labor movement that had been reborn in the dark days of the Great Depression, organized the mass production industries in the 1940s, and by the 1950s appeared poised to expand even further, perhaps even into the anti-union bastion of the South.  Instead, Hoffa’s sudden notoriety aided efforts by the anti-union groups to raise public alarm over union power, convincing liberals and conservatives alike to support “reform” legislation that would halter future union organizing efforts.  The stereotypical image of union leaders as mobbed up thugs was cemented in the late 1950s.  Films like The Irishman not only tap into that stereotype, they keep it alive for a younger generation of Americans, to whom Hoffa’s history and reputation is largely unknown.  

 

There are other compelling stories that Hollywood might choose to tell, not just about the labor movement, but even about union corruption.  These stories would offer viewers a more realistic understanding of the goals and struggles of America’s working people.  In doing so, these films could still include notorious figures, such as Hoffa, or mobsters, such as Russell Bufalino, the Pennsylvania Mafia figure played so well by Joe Pesci in The Irishman.   But these films might also portray the union leaders and union members who took a stand against organized crime, risking everything for the union cause that De Niro acknowledged in his acceptance speech.  For instance, in 1958, in the Northeast Pennsylvania garment industry, where The Irishman depicted Bufalino’s power as supreme, Min Matheson led thousands of women dressmakers in a strike in which they stood up to mob-connected employers and their thugs to win important workplace reforms.  To these women, working wives and mothers whose jobs provided crucial economic support for their families, the union was a vital ideal that was worth fighting for, even if it meant taking on mobsters like Bufalino.  

In the same time period, cab drivers in Chicago formed the Democratic Union Organizing Committee (DUOC) to oppose Hoffa and their local mobbed up Teamster leader, Joseph Glimco, by forming their own union and breaking away from the Teamsters.  While The Irishman includes scenes involving Glimco, Hoffa and their efforts to crush the break-away effort by pushing cabs into the Chicago River, viewers never encounter any of the cab drivers involved in the reform movement.  Movie-goers never learn what the cabbies were fighting for: dignity and respect, a cause they summarized in DUOC’s campaign fliers this way:  “Cab Drivers!! What Do You Want—Respect For Yourself, For Your Job;  For Your Union?” It was a slogan and an ideal that led a majority of Chicago’s cabbies to defy Glimco and the imported thugs, like the movie’s Frank Sheeran, and to vote in support of reform.  These are the types of true stories that Hollywood might tell, which in turn might actually aid the labor movement’s efforts to fight “on our behalf for workplace and economic gains and respect,” a goal that De Niro so aptly referenced in his acceptance speech. 

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