"The Work I've Done" is a touching and sometimes powerful look at the personal trials of blue-collar Americans facing retirement. The psychological and even the sexual impact of retirement are vividly illustrated by the lives of three Philadelphia auto workers and by the high point of the hour-long documentary: a beautiful and frank discussion of love and sex between a 70-year-old widow and widower who renew their contract with life through each other.
The documentary (Channel 26, 10 p.m.) is also timely because it deals with the United Auto Workers, who are concluding their bargaining this week with General Motors. Pensions and job security for aging auto workers are among the key issues that could cause a nationwide auto strike.
But writer-director Kenneth Fink is concerned less with the economics of retirement than with the existential question, which he frames in the opening narration: "In this country, if you ask a man who he is, he'll tell you what he does, what his work is. But how will he answer (that question) when his job is finished?"
Fink, to his credit, lets these men and women tell their own stories, and shows us a retirement party at the Budd Co. in Philadelphia; an annual bus trip to a UAW-operated trailer park in Florida where retirees and widows vacation; vivid footage of the Budd "barbecue pit" where welders work with 600 degree flame; the 70-year-old lovers on the dance floor and at the beach; and a moving finale at a retirement party at a storefront church.
UAW members enjoy virtually the highest wages ($12.67 hourly average), health benefits and pensions ($935 per month) of any blue-collar workers in the country. Unlike most workers, UAW's also have "30 & out," full pension after 30 years' service regardless of age. So the workers we see here are actually better off than most, and they are not wrestling with fears of poverty or Medicaid nursing homes, as many retirees do.
Instead, these workers are captured candidly by Fink in the act of wrestling with themselves. "I'm at the end of my rope now," says Buddy Jones, 60, retired by arthritis. After two years, Jones says, retirement "means you are finished. Finished working. Finished being a part of society." Of his postretirement depression, he says, "All of us go through it. Some guys get over that . . . I haven't yet."
But then comes the radiant and silver-haired UAW widow, Dot Ladyansky, who says of retirement: "It is not an end. It's a beginning . . . of a beautiful way of living." For some retirees, it's golf or shuffleboard that fills the void, but for Ladyansky, it is Walter Unger.
Ladyansky straightforwardly describes how she married as a virgin at 29 and never slept with another man during 35 years of marriage. Several years after her husband's death, she met Unger on a UAW bus trip, and later, she says, "I just knew I had to have him . . . I knew we had to get together, and had to do it right away."
They laugh and cry, and the viewer may too, describing the first night she slipped him a second martini and led him to her bedroom. It's not just sex, but the closeness and touching of another person that Ladyansky tells us is the key to keeping her retirement happy.
"The Work I've Done," part of the Public Broadcasting Service's "Non Fiction Television" series, is a most welcome antidote to the stereotypical and occasionally racist image of workers often seen on the tube. The seemingly warm race relations on the shop floor, one of the few places in the country where races truly mix, provide some of the best moments as fellow employes bid farewell to the men they have sweated with for 30 years.
This is Fink's second portrait of labor in America -- the first dealt with Colorado miners of the early 1900s -- and hopefully he will continue taking viewers into one of TV's last frontiers, the work place.
Fink shows us some telling differences between the way retirees are treated by their fellow workers and by management. We travel with Thess Campbell, a 54-year-old welder, on retirement day. Campbell, a Native American, is hailed and hugged by his black and white coworkers. Then he goes to the office for his official departure and, choked with emotion, tells the supervisor he would like to say goodbye to the office workers. The supervisor stiffly replies that Campbell will have to fill out his departure papers first. Campbell doesn't slug him, although some viewers might.