Ken Loach arrived back in Britain last week to address a meeting of call centre workers who are part of a union drive. It is difficult to imagine any other film director who had just won the Palme d’Or going to a talk to workers about unionisation.
Some 70 people attended a film showing at a Brick Lane restaurant in east London hosted by Respect and the Pell & Bales call centre CWU union branch. Loach introduced his film Bread and Roses, made in 2000, by saying, “I’m delighted to speak to the most illustrious audience I have been before this week.”
The film is about a group of low paid immigrant workers in Los Angeles fighting for union rights. Loach described how the film came about when his long time collaborator Paul Laverty, the film’s scriptwriter, spent a year in the city in the early 1990s.
According to Loach, “Paul got involved in the workers’ ‘Justice for Janitors’ campaign. What attracted me to the story was that it subverted the traditional view of Hollywood and Los Angeles. I liked the idea of workers fighting back in the heart of the beast. They were organising for trade union rights in difficult circumstances. Yet they managed to win.
“I think the story is interesting because it is about groups of workers that unions have tended not to organise. The mainly Hispanic workers created an organisation that broke away from traditional methods of union organisation. They organised immigrant workers, which was not easy because for many of them English was not their first language.
“Many of those involved in the dispute were very vulnerable because they were ‘illegal immigrants’.”
Loach told of how real janitors involved in union campaigns took part in the film alongside professional actors, “We told Adrien Brody that his casting was conditional on taking a course with union organisers, which to his credit he did. Outside of the lead actors a whole number of the people in the film were cleaners and were part of the unionisation campaign.
“My fondest memories of the film are working with the union organisers and the janitors.
“It is vitally important that people are in unions. But it is also important that we make the unions fit for the purpose they are designed for. Too often unions are far too timid. I think it is important that we shout about the successes we have. The union leadership has to have a sense of waging a war and knowing how to win.
“I’m just a film director, so one has to be cautious with criticism, but for instance, at the European Social Forum in London, I spoke at a showing of Bread and Roses as part of a union drive for cleaners in Canary Wharf. There was a march the following day.
“The union leadership called off support for the protest in the face of an injunction from Canary Wharf companies. The rather miserable demonstration went ahead without them. We need a vibrant, determined union movement.”