Movies about trade unions can usually be divided into two types. The first is where the union rallies the workers together in order to fight for better pay and conditions (for instance Bread and Roses and the documentary Harlan Country USA). The second type is where the union is corrupt and almost as bad as the owners. Examples of the latter include Hoffa and the entire second series of The Wire. Blue Collar falls squarely into this category. Made in 1978 when both the unions and manufacturing in the USA were in slow decline, it focuses on the Detroit auto-industry. Cheaper imports from abroad were slowly challenging American dominance in this area, and the big car companies were responding by either outsourcing jobs to Mexico and Asia, or making their employees work harder than ever before.
Harvey Keitel, Richard Pryor and Yaphet Kotto play assembly line workers who are up to their eyeballs in debt. They resent the system that exploits them, but also the union who seemingly no longer represents their interests. As a result they decide to rob their local union office to make some easy money. Predictably things don’t go as planned and it turns out they’ve not managed to steal any cash, but instead a book detailing the unions illegal business activities. With criminals, the union, and the police trying to find them and recover the book, they have to make some difficult decisions.
The explicit point made by Blue Collar is that racism, class, gender and almost any other social division you care to mention, is actively encouraged by the owners of the means of production as a way of keeping workers from uniting. Equally they tolerate the unions as just another tool of repression. The unions give the illusion that the workers are protected and have a voice. In this sense they act as a sort of safety valve against discontent. In Blue Collar it’s made clear that the union leaders have become closer to the bosses then the people they supposedly represent. If the film is hard on management and the unions though, it’s just as critical of the workers who allow themselves to be exploited by the system, and turn on each other the moment the opportunity presents itself.
This was Paul Schrader’s first film as both writer and director, and is one of the last gasps of 70s American cinema where you could get away with something this left-wing. As a director he’s clearly picked up his style from working with Scorsese, but without his sense of detail or composition. Luckily he’s got a stellar cast to distract from the often uninspired camera work.
Harvey Keitel often has the reputation of not fulfilling his early promise, but here he’s still at the top of his game. His character is at the heart of the film, and while it’s probably the least showy performance of the three leads, it’s also the best. Richard Pryor isn’t renowned for his straight acting roles, but here he’s excellent. While the film is largely serious, he does provide most of the laughs, but also some of its darker moments. Yaphet Kotto is given less to do, but rounds out the trio nicely.
As a leftist critique of American union activity, Blue Collar unfortunately hits the nail on the head in terms of what would happen over the next few years. Many of the unions were either increasingly co-opted by management, or were mired in corruption scandals during the 1980s. This gave successive governments the excuse to slowly erode union rights and their ability to collectively bargain. As Kotto states at the beginning of the film: ‘They pit the lifers against the new boy, and the young against the old. The black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place’.
Here is the trailer for Blue Collar: