When do we become a movement?

Jan 6, 2010

I'm one of those people who never saw On the Waterfront . . . or any Marlon Brando film, for that matter. I don't know how many like me there are out there, but it doesn't make me feel very cool. So I'm trying to correct that. Actually, my real inspiration was seeing author James T. Fisher talk this weekend about the history behind the 1954 film. It's a fascinating mix of despicable corruption and inspiring courageousness, topped with a serving of social justice that would put any good Union member on the verge of tears. And sniffling I was, halfway through the film, at the "Christ is in the shape up" scene. If you're a kindred haven't-seen-it, the scene shows Father Barry (played by the late Karl Malden) giving a moving impromptu sermon/eulogy aboard a ship at the harbor; it's a call to return to the "love of man" and a recognition that "every fellow down here" deserves respect, protection, and dignified work. Not until the end of the movie, though, do you sense that the longshoremen begin to see their union (capital and lowercase "u") as more than an empty word. They realize that their Union need not always be a corrupt mob front, and their group identity and mutual commitment gives them the strength to change the system. I couldn't help but draw parallels between yesterday's longshoremen and today's freelancers: competing for unregulated wages and work in a lawless system, unprotected by the law, and not yet aware of the enormous potential of their collective number. When will freelancers reach their tipping point and transcend from, at their most organized, a membership organization, to become a true class, a movement? With or without a Terry Malloy of our own, I think we're getting there.