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“Strength in Union” Examines Past, Present, Future of US Labor Movement

A new made-for-television documentary series will air five one-hour episodes covering the U.S. labor movement.

A new made-for-television documentary series aims to unpack the history of the labor movement in the United States in five one-hour episodes to combat anti-union propaganda at a time when union power is waning and collective bargaining rights are under attack across the nation.

Legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger will help narrate the new series “Strength in Union,” which tackles the history of the U.S. labor movement from its origins in the early Industrial Revolution to its historic struggles in incidents ranging from the battle with the Pinkertons, the Haymarket Riot in Chicago, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory strike and fire, the Taft-Hartley Act, Reagan’s firing of the air traffic controllers in the ’80s, and on to some of today’s most important labor issues, including free trade agreements and the effects of globalization on U.S. unions.

“[Labor] is both in a time of crisis and in a time of rebirth, and I think most of the important labor leaders realize that and they’re really looking for new ways to move into the future and new ways to deal with changes like globalization,” says the series’s director, Caesar Pink.

Pink grew up in a small, rural town in central Pennsylvania where the steel-mill was one of the primary employers, and most of the jobs were union. But as wages began to stagnate and the factories closed down, people began to see little hope for a better future. An array of social problems like alcoholism and domestic abuse flooded the town.

Caesar says that right-wing propaganda has turned many people in his town anti-union. His interests in how labor relations and media propaganda affected his hometown are part of what originally motivated him to work on the “Strength in Union” project.

The series will feature interviews with labor leaders such as Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steel Workers; Lawrence Hanley, president of the American Transportation Workers; Cliff Guffey, president of the American Postal Workers Union; and Daniel Walkowitz, author and New York University labor historian.

The series also hopes to weave in intersecting issues like race relations, women’s rights and the ups and downs of the U.S. economy, throughout its examination of the history of the U.S. labor movement. The series will also look at the larger forces and motives behind anti-union campaigns of the past as well as the present.

“We hope that the film will make people see what a heroic role union members played throughout American history in giving us the things we take for granted, whether it’s safety on the job, wages, weekends, all of those things,” Pink said.

“Strength in Union” also will tackle the future of the labor movement by researching the off-shoring and outsourcing of jobs, and how that issue has played a role in the decline of today’s labor unions, as well as new possible paths for unions in an expanding and changing world.

The series is being produced by the Arete Living Arts Foundation and likely will air on PBS after post-production wraps up. Shooting is expected to be finished by the end of the year.

“I hope this will kind of push back against the right-wing propaganda that’s really affecting people, especially in rural areas of America,” Pink said.