.Labor Pains

Had enough? Get together and organize, says documentary Americonned

It’s been 14 years since Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story. So in a way, filmmaker Sean Claffey’s new documentary, Americonned, could be viewed as an update—a feature-length, similarly outraged rehash—of Moore’s full-frontal assault on economic inequality in the good ol’ USA. 

First the bad news. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, various corporate takeovers, spurious anti-union rhetoric, skinflint rightwing lawmakers and judges, record-breaking big-business profits, voter suppression, etc., the situation today for wage earners is probably even worse than the miserable portrait painted by Moore in 2009. Wary citizens don’t exactly need a new “exposé” to tell them that. 

Ask April Sims of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. She’s really tired of “corporations enriching themselves on the backs of working people.” Twas ever thus, she says. “Check your history, maybe read a book. The labor movement was born in times just like these.” 

Indeed, take a stroll through the inner workings of America during the last century and reflect on stories of the haves versus the have-nots. The upper hand has been scrupulously maintained. Petro-emperor John D. Rockefeller liked to throw dimes to the plebs from inside his limousine, while immigrant slaughterhouse hand Jurgis Rudkus, fictional hero of Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle, forded rivers of blood for his share of the pie.

The glaring dichotomy between the rich and the poor in early 20-century America prompted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis (1916-1939) to warn: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” 

Clafffey’s angry-but-cool-as-a-Tesla doc meticulously lays out the schema. Present-day owners and top executives are out-earning their employees at rates that make the days of old-time robber barons look positively charitable by comparison. What changed in the meantime?

If ordinary citizens are vexed that more than $50 trillion has been “upwardly distributed” from the bottom 90% of the population to the top 1% in the last 40 years, they should blame economist Milton “Free Market Capitalism” Friedman. Or those insidious billionaire think-tank propagandists, the Koch brothers. Or union buster Ronald “The Great Communicator” Reagan.

Or how about Jeff Bezos, whose retail goliath Amazon is the bugaboo of Chris Smalls, the former Amazon supervisor who nevertheless convinced that company’s workers in Staten Island, New York to unionize. Or blame the Federalist Society, the semi-secret Yale Law School cabal that includes no fewer than five current Supreme Court justices, each more slavishly devoted to the plutocracy than the others. 

Or, if progressive activists are feeling especially ambitious, try calling out the elected officials who last week “compromised” their efforts to cut government spending by cruelly cutting out more programs that offer help to the country’s most unfortunate—rather than to rein in the corporate welfare that has been labeled “socialism for the rich.” 

Americonned names names. The movie’s montage of poverty tourism is leavened by the presence of authors, professors, directors of foundations, embarrassed ex-bureaucrats (such as former Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh) and even one lone venture capitalist, ruminating on the injustice of it all. More interesting than those folks is Christina (no last name provided), a truck driver and single mother of three from Pennsylvania’s Poconos Mountains, who’s working her ass off trying to feed her family on food stamps. Her report: “There’s no way out.” 

In the manner of most “outrage docs,” a faint ray of hope penetrates the gloom in the last reel. Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama tried but failed to unionize their workplace, but have not given up and have vowed to keep trying. Organize Florida, an Orlando community-based non-profit, has fought evictions of low-income residents and bolstered the campaign for civil rights by educating future leaders. Their big-picture goal is to reclaim America’s democracy. This illuminating doc’s parting message is clear. “It’s time to rise.” 

In theaters

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