Friday, December 7, 2012

Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream

On the unlikely chance that anyone is looking for a distraction from exam-grading, I thought I’d mention a new Alex Gibney documentary that aired on PBS and is now available on Hulu. Park Avenue: Money, Power, and the American Dream looks at issues related to income inequality through the lens of “two Park Avenues”: the one on the Upper East Side (and especially 740 Park, which, according to the film, houses the highest concentration of billionaires in the US, and is home to David Koch, Steve, Schwarzman, and John Thain); and the one in the south Bronx, which runs through the poorest congressional district in the country. The issues raised in the film will be familiar to most readers of this blog, but one of the film’s greatest strengths is the ease with which it weaves them together. Beginning with psychological and physical effects of wealth and poverty, the film also touches on a wide range subjects including: the growth of the lobbying industry as a reaction to Ralph Nader and progressive reform; tax rates, both individual and corporate, as well as the carried interest tax provision (Chuck Schumer comes in for much criticism here); the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity; the Ryan budget; and of course, the decline of unions. The labor-related portion of the film comes towards the end; it focuses primarily on Wisconsin public sector labor law reform, and makes a case for unions as the primary voice in politics for the working class (a view to which I am sympathetic). Private sector unions are mentioned only in terms of their decline.

This has me thinking about two related issues – the portrayal of unions in media (both fiction and non-fiction), and documentaries that can be usefully shown in a labor law class to illustrate some of the dynamics of organizing and bargaining that may not be obvious to students without a labor background. On the latter, last year I showed Where Do You Stand? Stories From An American Mill, which documented a decades-long series of organizing campaigns at a textile plant in North Carolina. (Spoiler alert: the union finally wins a Board election after the employer agrees to maintain neutrality, but the plant becomes unprofitable in the face of overseas competition a few years later, and closes.) I’ve also considered Justice in the Coalfields, about a UMWA strike against Pittston in the late 1980s, and Harlan County, USA. Are there any great labor documentaries that are approrpriate for the classroom that I’m missing? If so, I’d love to hear about them.

-- CG

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How about "American Dream," the documentary on the Hormel strike in the 80s?

Posted by: Michael Murphy | Dec 7, 2012 12:18:55 PM

I'll second "American Dream," although there's an argument it over-romanticizes the folks trying to push the union toward certain alternate tactics.

Also, there is some great stuff about union organizing in the film "Live Nude Girls Unite!" Because of the workforce involved, there is nudity, so it's probably not appropriate for at least most classes. Which is too bad, because the film depicts a lot of classic employer tactics in response to union organizing -- tactics used across industries.

Posted by: Joseph Slater | Dec 8, 2012 8:00:59 AM

Joe and Michael -- thank you both for suggesting American Dream; I have moved it to the top of my Netflix queue. Joe, I agree with your assessment of Live Nude Girls Unite! on all fronts -- it would provide a great platform to talk about lots of labor law and organizing issues, including issues related to race and gender -- but I wouldn't show in class for the reason you suggest.

Posted by: Charlotte Garden | Dec 14, 2012 3:41:08 PM

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