Belief in workers? unity

Unfortunately, given the dominant political consensus at the moment, the average person would be forgiven for believing that working class struggles are a thing of the past; that those embarking on them are doing so without hope, engaging in a futile confrontation which is doomed to failure.

That is why Bread and roses is so refreshing. Set in Century City, California, and based on a true story of the ?Justice for janitors? campaign in the early 1990s, it depicts the fight against the erosion of wages, healthcare and other benefits and for trade union recognition conducted by a small group of cleaners working for Angel, a private company contracted to work for a large transnational in a wealthy, commercialised, downtown area. Maya (Pilar Padilla), an illegal immigrant smuggled into the USA from Mexico to join her sister, plays one of the central characters, along with Sam (Adrian Brody), a militant trade unionist and leader of the campaign.

Many of the scenes cut to the real issues which thousands of workers have to face and come to terms with on a daily basis when involved in trade union struggle. The choice between the interests of the collective and the interests of the individual recurs throughout. Does a person risk sacrificing, for example, years of savings and the expectancy of a place at university for industrial action and the possibility of dismissal?

Many of the those involved in the campaign remain admirably loyal to the task at hand, despite the usual divide-and-rule tactics experienced by trade unionists throughout the world, and initiated in this film by the particularly vile and obnoxious manager of Angel. This is graphically illustrated in a scene where, in return for giving the name of the main organiser of a workplace meeting, a long-term loyal employee is offered promotion, increased leave, a healthcare package and a pay rise. Despite her obvious need for such things, she refuses and is promptly sacked. Loyalty comes at a price.

Bread and roses also exposes the hypocrisy surrounding the question of immigration. US firms are quite willing to turn a blind eye to the illegality of millions of immigrants in order to use them as a cheap pool of labour. US official society chooses not to recognise the poverty and harsh conditions such individuals and families experience.

When, in desperation, Moya is forced to steal a small sum of money from a cashier at a petrol station, she is arrested. Later she is convicted and is informed that her deportation back to Mexico is ?lenient?. All this makes for a telling indictment of immigration controls: capital sucks in ?worst-paid labour? and spits it out as a means of disciplining it.

Characteristically, Loach?s film is thought-provoking and partisan. The main characters remain unyielding and strong throughout, committed and focused to the task ahead. Indeed, despite the growing relationship between Sam and Maya, the audience is not subjected to gushing sentimentality of the kind which usually accompanies  mainstream Hollywood productions. Their relationship remains purposefully marginalised so as not to distract from the central theme.

Unlike Land and freedom, however, where the theme was political in the wider sense, the discourse of Bread and roses is more limited, tending to focus on this single trade union struggle and, with the exception of the question of immigration, failing to link it to broader political questions or the wider struggle of the working class as a whole. But then the historical-social setting of Bread and roses would make such an attempt completely unrealistic.

Bread and roses does not inspire us to sleep with our boots on in the expectation that the revolution is just around the corner and the end of capitalism is nigh. It is not meant to do that. What is does inspire is a positive belief in unity of action and the recognition that collective struggle can win.

Bob Paul