Review of Documentaries: As Goes Janesville by Brad Lichstenstein and Brothers on the Line by Sasha Reuther Cinema Guild

Review of Documentaries: Brad Lichstenstein, As Goes JanesvilleSasha Reuther, Brothers on the Line. As Goes Janesville. Brad Lichstenstein, director. New York: Cinema Guild, 2012. Documentary film. Brothers on the Line. Sasha Reuther, director. New York: Cinema Guild, 2012. Documentary film.

This essay is a part of our series, Graduate Students and The Middle Ground Journal.

What is the role of organized labor in American politics? That is the question posed by a pair of films released last year by Cinema Guild in New York. Sasha Reuther’s Brothers on the Line and Brad Lichstenstein’s As Goes Janesville both tell important stories about the automotive industry and its impact on American workers and American politics in the U.S. Midwest. Both are essentially local tales: Brothers on the Line focuses on the “Motor City” of Detroit, while As Goes Janesville is a portrait of Janesville, Wisconsin. Brothers on the Line focuses on the history of Detroit’s “big three” (the Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors corporations), while As Goes Janesville looks at just one General Motors plant that closed its doors in 2008. What is important for history teachers to know about these films is that both use and ignore history in significant ways. Teachers might find that a useful question to ask of these films in the classroom setting is: how are the directors using history? What have they chosen to include, and what have they intentionally left out? World historians should also note that both of these films fail to explore the global processes and global contexts lurking behind twentieth-century American labor history.

In Sasha Reuther’s Brothers on the Line, the actor Martin Sheen narrates the history of Detroit from the 1920s through the late 1960s, tracing the footsteps of the film’s three protagonists, the brothers Roy, Victor, and Walter Reuther (note that the director of this film is Victor Reuther’s grandson). The Reuther boys grew up in West Virginia in the first decades of the twentieth century, raised in a German-American family strongly supportive of socialism. In the 1920s, along with so many others from West Virginia, they migrated north to work for the Ford Motor Company of Detroit.  During the Great Depression, the brothers argued that autoworkers should unionize in order to protect themselves against exploitation in a rough-and-tumble economic environment. They helped establish the United Auto Workers (UAW) in 1935, and helped steer the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), also incorporated in 1935, towards a more militant, social justice-oriented direction than its rival American Federation of Labor (AFL). Brothers on the Line features gripping motion picture footage of labor unrest in and around the automative plants during these years, from the famous Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1937, which resulted in the first collective bargaining agreement at General Motors, to the so-called “Battle of the Overpass” in which Walter Reuther and other labor organizers were beaten up by Ford Motor Company thugs. These battles on the shop floor and in the streets propelled the UAW into existence, and propelled Walter Reuther from the shop floor to the business office. Following World War II, Reuther was elected President of the UAW. Six years later, he was elected President of the CIO.

This is where the Reuther story takes an interesting turn, and where Reuther, the director, adopts an interesting change in tone. Whereas the film’s protagonists helped organize seminal acts of labor resistance in the 1930s and helped consolidate the left-wing of American labor in the 1940s, as the film’s narrative progresses into the 1950s and 1960s the director, like Walter Reuther himself, suppresses the excitement of rank-and-file organizing and labor militancy by keeping the film’s narrative trained on his family members rather than on the actions of rank-and-file workers. Consumed with maintaining his own power, Walter Reuther gave in to the pressures of U.S. Cold War anti-communism and purged Communists and other dissenters from his unions. Nonetheless, we are told that the Reuther brothers never gave up their commitment to a broad “social justice” platform. Reuther marched with Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King, Jr.; he spoke at the 1963 March on Washington; he befriended John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy to get bills passed in Washington. Indeed, Reuther’s role as a political lobbyist in Washington, D.C. receives a fairly prominent treatment in this film. The impression conveyed to the viewer is that Reuther believed that holding onto power and influence in Washington, D.C. was more important than retaining an inflexible commitment to “social justice.”

While Sasha Reuther does a remarkable job of trying to tell the story of his grandparents’ generation dispassionately – he deserves credit for bringing up the darker side of Walter Reuther’s undemocratic leadership as well as his collusion with political leaders in Washington – one of the most unsatisfying aspects of the second half of Brothers on the Line is the way that the viewer is led to believe that the progression of American labor history followed Walter Reuther’s own biographical trajectory. Whereas history was made on the shop floor and in the streets in the first half of the twentieth century, Brothers on the Line suggests that in the 1950s and 1960s history was made in the hidden corridors of institutionalized power. We are led to believe that Reuther’s speeches and lobbying in this period were the culmination, rather than the derailment, of the labor movement he had helped build. We are led to believe that it mattered that he was friends with U.S. Presidents, that, if workers were going to achieve economic justice, they needed leaders willing to schmooze with the American elite. In essence, what was a working class history of socialist youth from West Virginia leading a struggle against worker exploitation in the factories of Detroit becomes, by the end of Brothers on the Line, a top-down history of presidents signing bills into law and men in suits shaking hands in front of flashing cameras. Somewhere along the way the “working class” get lost in Reuther’s interpretation of this important history.

The “great man” version of history that this approach entails is further reinforced by the film’s conclusion. Reuther’s narrative of the 1960s tells of great leaders coming to power, then dying at the hands of assassins in a series of important losses for the American labor movement: John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy. In parallel, Roy Reuther’s death is explained, then the film culminates in the tragic death of Walter Reuther in an airplane crash in 1970 (Victor Reuther lived until 2004, but the last thirty years of his life are given minimal treatment in the film). Brothers on the Line ends with the pessimistic message that Walter Reuther and his brothers brought something unique to American labor history, something that has been missing ever since, and that what the labor movement needs today is a new, young Walter Reuther-type to take the lead. This is, of course, a problematic conclusion. Not only does it erase the history of the past forty years (from 1970 to 2012), failing to explain why unions have declined in membership and influence in the United States, but it also asserts boldly that unionism works best when there is strong autocratic leadership rather than rank-and-file collective democracy.

Brad Lichstenstein’s film, As Goes Janesville, provides something of a corrective to Brothers on the Line’s top-down approach, although it fails to fill the temporal gap. The film’s narrative begins in 2008, the year that General Motors closed its historic facility in Janesville, Wisconsin. We are introduced to three former workers of the plant, now either unemployed or forced to relocate to another General Motors plant in Indiana. These three protagonists make an interesting line-up: all are women; all are mothers; two of three are African-American. As such, this is a very different story than that of Brothers on the Line with its three white male actors. As Goes Janesville also follows two other individuals who were heavily involved in the story of the Janesville plant: Mary Willmer-Sheedy, a local CEO and advocate for the city’s business community and major contributor to the state Republican Party, and Wisconsin Democratic state senator Tim Cullen, whose story provides a rough equivalent to the “Walter Reuther” top-down perspective.

As a work of historical interpretation, As Goes Janesville does not offer the viewer much to hold onto. A few historic photographs featured at the outset of the film place Janesville’s contemporary woes within a local historic context: we learn that the General Motors plant in Janesville was one of the oldest automotive plants in the United States when it shut down in 2008. But what happened in Janesville between the 1920s and early 2000s is not explained at all. Even the question of why General Motors chose to close down its Janesville plant in 2008 is unanswered. As Goes Janesville offers no real structural analysis of the automotive industry, its history, or of the contemporary U.S. economy.

When we put these two films together, we are still left with only a patchwork narrative of the history of automotive manufacturing labor in the United States. In the 1930s workers unionized and militantly fought for collective bargaining; in the 1950s and 1960s the leadership of the UAW ossified, and yet this was the height of the UAW’s political influence in Washington, D.C.; in the 1960s and 1970s the “social justice” agenda ultimately stalled out and the great leaders died; finally, in the midst of the post-2008 Great Recession, union membership in the United States is at a historic low and labor unions continue to lose political influence at both the state and federal levels. This last segment of automotive labor history is the one so grippingly portrayed in As Goes Janesville. As the story of Janesville continues into the 2010s, we find our five protagonists in the midst of the great Wisconsin Uprising. As many as one hundred thousand demonstrators occupied the Wisconsin State House building and grounds in support of unions’ collective bargaining rights in early 2011. And yet, Governor Scott Walker won that fight, and he also won his recall election in 2012. He and his anti-union “right to work” ideology has risen to prominence in American national politics. On this somber note is where the narrative of As Goes Janesville concludes.

The history presented in both films makes perfect sense; both films tell tales of the rise and fall of American labor. But the collective history as told by these two films still leaves a huge historical gap. The history of the rise of neoliberalism in the United States in the late twentieth century is unexplained. The globalization debates of the 1990s – the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994 and the now-famous “Battle of Seattle” in opposition to the World Trade Organization in 1999 – are ignored. The increasing mobility of U.S. capital in a global perspective – the “off-shoring” of jobs, as well as the “blackmail,” as Tim Cullen puts it in As Goes Janesville, by which corporations ask for tax credits and subsidies and waivers from governments in exchange for opening up a new plant in their vicinity – is not really discussed. We are not told how American labor got from Point A to Point B, from the Reuther brothers to Scott Walker, from the 1970s to the 2000s. What we are told, in the collective narrative of these two films, is that American labor unions are losing the class struggle, and that formerly prosperous cities like Detroit and Janesville are in decline. This narrative, of course, still begs the question: why?

Instructors teaching courses in U.S. labor and working class history, or surveys of twentieth and twenty-first century American history, may find either or both of these films useful in the classroom. Students may enjoy and relate to As Goes Janesville more enthusiastically than they will to Reuther’s Brothers on the Line, if only because the people and stories portrayed are likely more familiar to them. Instructors looking to fill the gap between the 1970s and the twenty-first century would do well to consider screening one of Barbara Kopple’s important films, whether Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) or American Dream (1990). Yet none of these films will help students understand how things changed over time between the 1970s and the 2000s. As Goes Janesville will hit students in the heart, and this powerful film will likely prod them into thinking about the importance of labor unions in the twenty-first century. The onus, however, will remain on instructors to explain how we got here. Finally, world history instructors will be disappointed in the lack of global perspective in these films. There is no explanation of global economic interdependencies or the circulation and mobility of capital and labor across borders. We are left with the impression that these are uniquely American stories, which is not completely true, and perhaps even a disservice. That said, both of these films are interesting and important productions, worthy of the attention of students, teachers, and scholars alike.

Reviewed by Gregory Rosenthal, State University of New York Stony Brook
Edited by Sarah R. Hamilton

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]