Workers Unite Film Festival opens May 9 in NYC

NEW YORK – The Third Annual NYC Workers Unite Film Festival will take place from May 9 through May 19 at Greenwich Village’s Cinema Village theater and other venues around New York City. The festival will feature over 50 of the  best documentaries and films by professional and student filmmakers depicting the lives of workers and their struggles, nationally and internationally.   

New York City is the home of many film festivals. Most don’t highlight the lives of working people, although some have working people as characters. But until recently there was no film festival in NYC that portrayed workers’ lives and struggles, front and center. And no festival that took a side on behalf of working people in their fight for better wages, respect and dignity.

The Workers Unite Film Festival seeks to address  this big business (and all too frequently independent film industry) blackout.

The stories of workers’ struggles in Bangladesh, South Africa, Iraq, Spain, Palestine and Ecuador will be prominently featured, reflecting a festival  theme this year of “Global Labor Solidarity.” The documentary Schoolidarity addresses the issues around the militant 2012 Chicago teachers strike; Overpass Light Brigade portrays  the creative tactics activists in Wisconsin used to defy the big business message machine during  Scott Walker’s union-busting campaign.

Closer to home, Under the Bus tells the story of the 2013 bus strike by ATU Local 1181 drivers in Staten Island, N.Y., in protest of proposed mass firings by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Other films detail the struggle of  NYC’s “carwasheros” to unionize their industry; still another documentary portrays activists’ struggles at Zuccotti Square during Occupy Wall Street.

Andrew Tilson, founder and executive director of the festival, referring to the global reach of this year’s festival, says, “What is stunning is how exactly on point it is (workers’ struggles in other countries) compared to our story. When you see these films you see what is happening here is very much what is happening in every country where you have a 1 percent that is trying to stomp on the rights of workers in general.”

The week-long cultural festival is supported by a coalition of labor and community organizations, including the NYC Central Labor Council, NY Taxi Workers Alliance, TWU Local 100, SEIU 1199, Local 32BJ, New York State Nurses Association, CWA Local 1180,  National Writers Union, and Make the Road New York.  

Important additions to the coalition this year are some of the organizations that have recently been on the forefront of organizing drives in NYC, like the Retail Action Project, the Restaurant Opportunities Center and the National Domestic Workers Alliance.

In an interview, Tilson said this growing coalition points to an increased understanding among unions that “supporting a working class culture and refocusing attention on the dignity of workers is something that is critical to building the workers’ movement.”

Tilson pointed out that, although today’s unions have not always focused on culture, in the past unions did. The labor classic film “Salt of the Earth” was actually funded and produced by the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers in support of their strike against the Empire Zinc Mine in1951. The film will be shown at the festival on Sunday, May 11, in commemoration of its 60th anniversary.

Tilson, a documentary filmmaker himself and graduate of the labor studies program at NYC’s union-affiliated Murphy Institute, decided to organize the festival when he noticed that “in a union-strong city like New York there was not a single real workers’ labor film festival.”

In addition to Washington, San Francisco and several other U.S. cities, there are currently 36 established labor film festivals around the world, including in South Africa, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Taipei, Israel, the UK, Ireland, Italy and Spain.

New to the festival this year is a Poetry and Spoken Word Night  on Thursday, May 15, at NYC’s Lithographers Union hall. It will feature performances by Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping, as well as many labor-oriented spoken word artists and poets, including this writer.    

A special festival event against the anti-labor policies of Killer Coke and in solidarity with Latin American trade unionists will take place on Sunday, May 18. Films and speakers will address Coca Cola’s financial aid to paramilitary death squads used to attack and assassinate trade unionists in Latin America. The 80-strong New York Labor Chorus will sing labor songs.

For ticket information and schedule of films, go to Tickets, reasonably priced, can be purchased online or at the door on the day of the event. Full-week tickets and all-day tickets are also available.



Chris Butters
Chris Butters

Chris Butters is a co-chair of the Brooklyn, NY Club. He is a retired NYC court reporter and a former DC 37 (AFSCME) chapter officer. In addition to participating in anti-racist and labor struggles, his poetry continues to be published in Blue Collar Review and many other literary and left poetry magazines.