Thank you New York City District Council of Carpenters for covering the 2014 Workers Unite Film Festival. Here is the article that they let us publish on our website:
Andrew Tilson had been working with the Taxi Workers Alliance in an eﬀort to help them organize their health care system to become more aﬀordable. The Union had a current system in place, but it was by no means an eﬃcient one. But Tilson was also filming the journey of these taxi drivers using his other job running a film production company to try and capture the important moments for their Union as they were happening. The Workers Unite! Film Festival grew from these two seemingly separate tasks that shared a very similar theme: demonstration.
The Carpenter: Where in your background did such an interest in Unions start?
Andrew Tilson: “I grew up in a Union background from the very beginning as my mother worked for District Council 65 and David Livingston. I remember as early as 7 or 8 years old, when I had a day off from school it usually coincided with a day for picket lines, usually around the anti-war movement. I remember in our house it was always about being organized, and workers and the rights of workers.
Right after graduating, I worked with District Council 37 in bringing managed and affordable health care to workers across the city, especially those that were less organized. I’ve worked with a bunch of these new labor groups in trying to direct them to affordable health care, and to the new concept of how you maintain a Union identity while people are signing up individually for health care.”
TC: How did that first year go?
AT: “We were amazed. Even in the first year, we got close to around 75 films from around the country, around the world. There is a desire out there from people who have a creative bent to address this issue. We screened the film Brothers on the Line, which details the rise of the Reuther brothers and the United Auto Workers, and we had 275 people in the theater, a packed house.” (The film was reshown this year in celebration of its digital release.)
TC: New York City being such a large Union town, how do you reach all those different groups that would support a venture like this?
AT: “The real answer is, we are still in the process of digging into that market, and we feel that we developed exactly because there are so many different Unions. Interestingly, I talked to the newest Teamsters members, the horse-and-carriage drivers, who have received a lot of negative attention in the media, but would not be your first idea of a film subject.
This is again an attack on working people’s livelihoods, and they love the idea of a film festival. With New York City being one of the strongest carpentry and construction industries in the world, it is important to reach out to those Unions who may not immediately think to combine Union and film festival. So we felt it was important to tell the story that this was not just a local phenomenon, and that this is something that people fight against all over the country, and all over the globe.”
TC: What other sort of outreach are you looking for?
AT: “Sometimes it’s not convincing Union members to come see the stories, but instead that they have their own story to tell. The Ironworkers were filming demonstrations outside a non-Union site, and I brought up putting together a piece, and they’d never thought about a film festival (as a way of demonstrating).
So I think it’s getting people to think about the fact that it’s important to communicate the story. Two and three minute pieces can be very effective, it’s not great cinema, but people come out of the theaters (with an opinion on the story). When I speak to Unions, I try to let them know that this is doable, we can help you do this, and create a box where you can show that other people are fighting for the same thing.”
TC: An interesting duality that comes across in the types of films shown is that of time and place. Brothers on the Line tells a story close to home that has already happened, an historical example of labor unions in our own country. Other films show countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, South Africa, et al. that are dealing with labor movements right now. Both types of film end hopefully, with the idea that the labor movement will continue on, fighting for worker’s rights to always be better. But the distinction comes from the fact that we know the ending to the first type: America’s labor unions have been established. Is this part of your screening process?
AT: “We look for films that are going to resonate. We know where we’re at as a Union movement. We didn’t want to rehash that things are terrible, nobody wants to go see that. What we found was that people are fighting back, that people do feel empowered, so even the historical films need to have a resonance to what is going on now. And because we open it up to the global arena, we can be selective in fine tuning the message that the past does talk to the present, that we can learn from the positive and negative lessons from the past, and the fact that not all struggles are victorious.
The labor movement is under attack and has been for several years, and the rights for people in the workplace have never been more in the forefront of the economic battle. The buzzword today is income inequality, and there is a direct relationship between that inequality and the drop in Union membership. Labor Unions serve the purpose of uniting workers so they can have dignity and rights in the workplace in order to achieve a life that is honorable. So that they can hold their heads up every day when they go to work. And if they can’t, we need to discover why that’s not happening, and how that can happen. Our goal is to make that story known.”