While Labor Day often marks the unofficial end of summer, it’s also a chance to acknowledge the continued sacrifices that workers make for fair wages and treatment. Weekends, holidays, raises, healthcare— people fought for those basic things that many of us take for granted.
And the fight is far from over. Across the United States, thousands of fast food workers have walked off the job and staged strikes for higher wages. Service work—one of the fastest growing sectors of the job market—is tough to find. And economic struggles in the United States are still colored by race—the black unemployment rate, for instance, continues to be twice as high as the rate for whites. This Labor Day, we want to encourage our readers to do two things: act locally and learn more. Find a cause that’s close to home—it could be anything from supporting a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to supporting fast food workers to backing paid sick leave for all workers to saving public sector jobs. Then check out our list of labor-centered films that shed light on historic fights for labor justice and provide context for some of today’s battles.
Brother Outsider: The Life Bayard Rustin
The 2003 documentary examines the life of Bayard Rustin who is best-remembered as the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and a trailblazing openly gay black activist. Rustin was also the founder and director of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and coordinated the AFL-CIO’s work on civil rights and economic justice. This year, Rustin was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Inducted into the Labor Department’s Hall of Honor. Streaming on Netflix.
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story
This 2012 documentary explores African-American waiter Booker Wright’s bold decision to expose the true state of race relations in 1960s Mississippi. Originally produced in 1965 for NBC, this film became one of the first national examinations of black labor struggles in the restaurant industry. Streaming on Netflix
The Dream is Now
This 30-minute, 2013 documentary tells the story of undocumented students forced into low-wage work because of their immigration status. Streaming on Netflix
The 2008 documentary chronicles the fight to save a 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles by one of the largest groups of urban farmers in the country. Known as the South Central Farmers, the group was made up of about 350 families who grew and sold produce. Check YouTube or your local library.
Salt of the Earth
The 1954 classic is based on a workers’ strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in New Mexico. The film looks at prejudice against the Mexican-American workers in the early 20th century. Check YouTube or your local library.
Miles of Smiles: Years of Struggle
This 1983 documentary highlights the struggles of the first black trade union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Check YouTube or your local library.
A. Philip Randolph—For Jobs and Freedom
This 1983 film delves into the life of A. Philip Randolph, the civil rights and labor leader. It also includes a overview of African-American labor history. Check YouTube or your local library.
At the River I Stand
The hourlong, 1993 documentary covers the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Check YouTube or your local library.
Oh Freedom After While
The 1999 documentary tells the story of the 1939 Missouri sharecroppers strike and the legacy of racism in the agricultural industry. Check YouTube or your local library.