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In 1994, a South African photojournalist received the Pulitzer Prize for his picture of a starving girl stalked by a vulture. Weeks later, he carried out a terrible, desperate act--an act that embodied the anguish of an entire nation.
"Union Maids" is an appealing and often compelling documentary about three women involved in the workers' movements in the early 1930s. Much of the movie consists of interviews with three women in their 60s at the time of filming. They are Sylvia, Kate, and Stella and they are figures of dignity and beauty amid their experiences of social injustice.
They vividly tell us the way it was back then when they and other people risked jobs and lives attempting to organize trade unions amid the textile factories and meat producers of Chicago in order to remedy injustices to the factory workers. This was a time when if you dared demand safe working conditions to prevent meat-workers from losing their thumbs in sausage machines or called for an increase in the pitiful subsistence wages, you were immediately labeled a Bolshevik and fired.
It was a time when the police seemed to be arms of the capitalist industrialists by beating and even killing recalcitrant strikers or forcefully evicting the unemployed from their apartments.
It was an ugly era before unemployment compensation and other worker benefits, and it all comes painfully alive in this fascinating documentary, a collaborative effort by filmmakers James Klein, Julia Reichert, and Miles Mogulescu. Particularly effective is the intercut archival footage of riots, police beatings, the first union rallies, the scenes of evicted workers with their furniture strewn on the sidewalks.
"Union Maids" also relates the workers' movement to the continuing struggle for equality for women, and there are comments on the unions of the 1970s as being too conservative. Although at times the film seems to be grinding a socialist axe, it generally remains rather level-headed and is always humane. Some of the music is by Woody Guthrie as sung by crusader-singer Pete Seeger.
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