Depiction of Industrial Relations in Movies: An Exploratory Study.

AuthorElembilassery, Varun


Industrial relations (IR) have several actors involved in it; but the perception among non-actors is influenced by print and visuals due to its unique ways of depiction of IR. Among these is silver screen, with its myriad forms of storytelling and long history that has played a subtle and significant role (Walsh, 1986). Many movies were made over the last century, which tried to depict the industrial scenario in realistic, artistic or sordid manner (Margolies, 1981). The neglect of such movies by labor researchers has created a void (Walsh, 1986). This dearth of studies needs to be rectified and any amount of written history cannot supplant the importance of movies.

Movies are different from articles or books, even if they depict the same incident. Movies tell multiple stories about the pattern of human experience and speak a different language, often making the viewer think in different ways (Frank, 2000). Many a times, the images that movies make are reflections and in some cases illusions of reality (Stoffregen, 1997). Further, movies have helped save the oral history of lived experiences of labor movement, in which the voice, color and motion helps revive and validate the collective memory, every time the movie is viewed (Brigden, 2016). Movies also have a significant historical role as a control system in social conflicts (Snyder, 1995). Movies become effective, powerful and convincing when it has the least bias and the deepest reach and thus have profound impact on society (Puette, 1992). This exploratory study aims to analyze a few selected movies that have served as social evidence, which can also serve as a tool for teaching IR for future generations.

Literature Review

Movies were a political weapon of the working-class resistance as well as the capitalist dominance (Ross, 1991). Movies were of two types; the shorter one produced by unions for education and training of their cadre and the longer ones produced by production houses for commercial purpose. When movies progressed to better technology, it became difficult for the working-class to make their own movies. Adding to this was the state opposition to many radical themes and liberal movies (Ross, 1991). On the commercial side, many movies that were aimed at the working class problems had the ulterior motive of providing entertainment rather than depicting the reality (Zieger & Zieger, 1982). Such movies have not done any good for the larger cause of labor movement and hence are not worthy of any detailed study.

Movies in general blend social realism and rhetorical coherence to create an overarching narrative (Borda, 2010). Such narratives can perpetuate stereotypes as well as imprint images in the minds of society (Ross 2001). Characters in movies and their associated image become the pivotal point of creating the narrative. But, precedence to the personal problems and the associated melodrama over the social problem (Borda, 2010) and political patronage may create distortions. This may not be the case always and some movies have created a realistic picture and positive narrative (Demerath, 1981).

Even though miniscule in count, many movies incorporate a historical and realistic context that has contributed to the cultural discourse of the society (Borda, 2010). Conservative movies depicted unions, leaders and strikes in bad light whereas, liberal movies condemned exploitation and advocated reform. Radical movies romanticized with militant trade unionism and radical changes in society. In the US, in the 1920s, the share of liberal and radical movies reduced and the share of conservative movies increased (Ross, 2001). One reason for this decline was the corporatization of movie industry and the associated labor problem in the industry itself (Zieger & Zieger, 1982). Internal labor problems in movie production houses created an aversion to taking up labor themes in movies. Further, in the post Second World War scenario, the call for national unity blunted the anti-establishment cause and as a result most movies on working class people focused more on individual problems and less on social problems (Ross, 2001). Despite such temptations, many movies have presented the industrial relations cause in an entertaining way, some of them even successful on a commercial scale.

This paper is a study of a few selected movies that have depicted IR in diverse and detailed manner, which can influence the perception about IR among non-actors and can also be an effective tool for teaching IR to future generations. The importance is for the industrial relations cause in comparison to entertainment quotient and commercial success. The larger objective is to fill the academic void created due to neglect of movies based on IR by researchers and academicians.


In concurrence to the literature discussed above, a few criteria were finalized to select the movies. They are:

  1. Absence of ruling regime glorification

  2. Absence of family melodrama

  3. Precedence to worker cause

  4. Theme diversity

  5. Sample heterogeneity.

A long list of movies were made and based on the above criteria, six movies were selected. Inspirational true story behind the movie, the context of the movie and the depth of depiction of the industrial relations were the implicit measures used to ascertain social cause, theme diversity and heterogeneity that the movie had brought into the sample set. The details of the selected movies are given in Table 1.

A two stage methodology is followed in this study. Firstly, a movie analysis is done in the traditional manner. Here, the context of the movie is described in terms of the industrial relations scenario of the region using the inspirational story behind the movie and the impact on society. The purpose of a movie analysis in the traditional manner is to set the perspective from which the movie needs to be analyzed. In addition, such analysis also corroborates the criteria of theme diversity and sample heterogeneity used for movie selection.

The second stage is to examine the depiction of industrial relations scenario. To develop a qualitative understanding of the context of a movie, a combination of visual and audio data analysis is required (FitzGerald, 2012). A visual is similar to the field notes of a participant observer and thus is a source of information containing potential data (Erickson, 2012). Movies contain a flood of information and any attempt to do fine-grained molecular coding will be incomplete. Thus, a molar coding without much emphasis on micro aspects is suitable for movie analysis. Hence a manifest content approach derived from the subject matter, which gives less importance to the latent content is used to analyze movies. The analysis prominently looks for objects, gestures and phenomenon to arrive at the manifest content (Erickson, 2012). The focus is descriptive analysis with very little or no explanatory element in it. Using the manifest content, the depiction of IR in these movies is understood and inferences on the image that such a depiction creates are made.

Movie Background Review

Salt of the Earth (English-1953): Salt of the Earth, made in cooperation with the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, is based on the true story of a miners' strike by the Mine-Mill Union against the Empire Zinc Corp. The movie created much controversy in the United States as it was in favor of communist ideas. The Director and Producer of the movie were blacklisted and the lead character was arrested, banned from acting and then deported to Mexico. Laboratories refused to process the film, projection technicians declined to show the movie, distribution was blocked and theaters cancelled bookings. Interestingly, many mine workers and their wives from the actual strike played similar roles in the movie. Salt of the Earth was blacklisted in United States during the cold war era.

Seemabaddha (Bengali--1971): The movie, Seemabaddha, part of the Calcutta...

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