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‘American Dream’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 27, 1992


Barbara Kopple
Not rated

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Barbara Kopple's devastating 1990 documentary, "American Dream," is about the wages of fighting the good fight. The film, which won the Academy Award last year for Best Documentary, deals, specifically, with a strike by meatpackers at a Hormel plant in Austin, Minn., and, in general, with the state of organized labor during the Reagan years. But its explorations take us deeper than that, into issues of fairness and principle, into our bedrock assumptions about American life. It's one of those rare journalistic documents that by detailing the tragic particulars of an individual struggle manage to define the whole war.

The details of the case are relatively straightforward, but they lead us into a morass of ambiguity and doubt where doing the right thing is not nearly as hard as figuring out what the right thing might be. In 1984, George A. Hormel and Co. announced to its workers in Austin that it would cut their benefits by 30 percent and their hourly wage from $10.69 to $8.25. To the workers, whose incentive programs recently had been rolled back, the wage cut was a back-breaker -- particularly because it came during a year when the company posted a profit of $29 million.

Hormel executives justified the cuts by stating that they needed to remain competitive. The rank and file weren't buying it, though. As one worker says, "If they ask us to take this kind of cut when they show a profit, what will they do if they show a loss?"

Kopple lays out these early scenes with patient deliberateness, carefully touching all the bases as she passes. Still, we can't help but get caught up in the euphoria of the moment as the union local, the P-9, of the United Food and Commercial Workers International, prepares to launch its campaign against the company. The local hires a consultant from New York named Ray Rogers to aid in the fight. Rogers, whose company, Corporate Campaign Inc., specializes in helping unions strategize and gain public support, is a firebrand with a genius for publicity and motivation.

With Rogers fanning their passions, the workers believe they can force the company to cave in even when the international union in Washington refuses to back P-9. When the company makes its final offer, the union refuses it by a wide margin, choosing instead to go on strike. At the union hall in Austin, the workers greet their mild-mannered president, Jim Guyette, with pumping fists, chanting "We're gonna win, we're gonna win." The scenes of energized union members banding together, dancing, fixing each other's cars, repairing each other's houses, paint a picture of collective utopia that seems to date from the heyday of union activism in the '30s.

Back in Washington, though, Lewie Anderson, the director of the meatpacking division for the international, knows that it's the '80s, not the '30s. He's seen the mood of the country swing against the unions, and watched corporations, emboldened by support from the Reagan administration, take a hard line against worker demands. In negotiations he's been forced to take a more concessionary stance, and this is why he's so outraged when the P-9 chooses not to take his advice and go it alone against Hormel. He's convinced that the Austin strike is a death march that will end in catastrophe not only for P-9, but the union as a whole.

Our sentiments, at first, go with the softspoken Guyette and Rogers and the rank and file in Austin. We can't understand why Anderson and the international won't side with P-9. On the face of it, the international's stance looks like cowardice or a bureaucratic power play, and Anderson, who thinks that Guyette and Rogers are "maniacs," looks like an enemy almost as formidable as Hormel.

As the strike wears on, though, the company seems just as entrenched in its position as it was at the start. Austin becomes a kind of siege town, with Hormel biding its time, running the plant with management personnel until the workers are starved into compliance. At this point, Anderson's pragmatism begins to make more and more sense. As the strike moves into its 17th week, the rhetoric from Rogers and Guyette begins to sound like the hollow beating of war drums, and dissension within the ranks grows to the point where fistfights break out during meetings.

By the 21st week, 75 of the plant's 1,400 striking workers have returned to work, along with some 400 new employees from the outside. The gleeful enthusiasm at the beginning of the film is replaced now with a mood of despair and confusion. And as events tumble forward to their dire conclusion, Kopple allows the momentum to build so that we feel as if we're watching an early two-reeler in which the heroine is drawn closer and closer to the teeth of a buzz saw. The heartbreak in these scenes, as the workers are torn between their obligation to the union and their responsibility to their families, is nearly unbearable. We watch as brothers are torn apart and grown men burst into tears over their dilemma, as storefronts are boarded up and wives pack up their china to move. What was once a dream has now become a slowly enveloping nightmare from which there is no awakening.

There is no index for the kind of misery we witness in "American Dream." The film's real villains -- the Hormel executives -- are kept mostly offscreen, and if the movie has a flaw it's that they're never allowed to present their side of the story, even if only for the purpose of refuting it. Kopple doesn't even give lip service to objectivity. Still, her methods are tactful and restrained; she doesn't bully. By the end, Austin looks like a ghost town; the union hall is deserted, Guyette and the other members of P-9's executive commitee have been suspended, and Rogers has moved on to another fight. We're told that in March 1986, after 25 weeks on the picket line, workers were informed by Hormel that all the jobs in the plant had been filled and that their names would be put on a waiting list. After two years, fewer than 20 percent of the workers on that list had been called back to work. These words, presented simply on a black card at the end of this powerful, thought-provoking film, hit us like a shot to the head.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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