Friday, November 20, 2009

Labor Pains: An Injury to One

An Injury to One (2002) – Wilkerson
butte, MT photo mt_gal.jpg
“An injury to one is an injury to all” was a motto for IWW(Industrial Workers of the World, its members known as Wobblies), an all encompassing radical labor union, in the turn of the last century. Some of the more famous wobblies include – Bill Haywood, Emma Goldman, John Reed, Joe Hill and Ralph Chaplin. To keep the long story short, IWW was crushed by the country entering the first World War where war profiteering companies and the US gov’t were in cahoots to exploit workers.

Wilkerson’s visually elegant, well-researched experimental doc tells a story of Frank Little, a wobbly organizer who was known for his fiery speeches. He was beaten, dragged behind the car then hanged on a railroad trestle by Anaconda Copper Company’s hired thugs in Butte, MT in 1917. Butte, back then, was a Gibralter of the labor movement and Little was sent there after the mine fire in which took the lives of 168 miners, caused by extremely hazardous working conditions, still the worst mining disaster in history.

Using black & white, color stocks and split screen presentation, Wilkerson’s thesis student film is quite beautiful to look at. Words appear on the screen against dead desolate town that is present day Butte, punctuated by simple guitar soundtrack.
Wilkerson’s implication on the Joe McCarthy and Daschell Hammet’s involvement(as a Pinkerton detective) in lynching of Little is a bit far fetched but over all the impact of the film is already felt in the beginning with 3’x7’x77” (dimensions of Montana grave) sequences.

I watched An Injury to One at Maysles Institute in Harlem. Two of my dear friends who are present day wobbly labor organizers did a Q & A on the state of IWW today. With many of manufacturing jobs gone and the American work force heavily dependent on retail and service industry, the need for union protections and benefits among transient workers are greater than ever. Starbucks workers union has made some strides organizing and improving working conditions of its workers. But the in country where only 9% of the workforce(public sector) and 6%(Private) are unionized, they are fighting an uphill battle.

The picture quality of the film was terrible. I’ve seen a pristine copy of An Injury before and was excited to see it on a big screen. And the Maysles Cinema isn’t really up to par as a film screening venue. But its eccentricities made up for it. For instance, a crazy old black gentleman in a flamboyant suit and a Rick James wig started singing Hava Nagila and Irish National anthem before the show, then proceeded shouting non-sequiturs in his sleep during the film and Q & A through out. Then we experienced Albert Maysles outside the theater curbing an old timey popcorn machine. Weird night it was.

Here is my travelogue to Butte, MT 2 years ago, if anyone's interested:

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