Claude Berri’s 1993 blockbuster French film Germinal was based on an Emile Zola novel concerning French coal miner strikes in the 1860s. In the film one can see what a feudal world looked like. As with John Sayles’s 1987 film Matawan ,about a 1920 coal miners’ strike in West Virginia, the miners lived in company owned rental properties and shopped in company owned stores… in both instances paying high prices for what they received. As it has always been with non union workplaces ( duh, like Florida’s ‘ Right to work’ laws making it more difficult for union organizing) the working stiffs always got the short end of the stick. Both of these films ended with the strikers ultimately failing to get what they wanted. One scene in Germinal captured the feudal nature of things and the mindset it established. The French miners finally organize a bit and send a small committee to meet with the mine owner ( an actual replica of a ‘ Lord of the Manor ‘) at his majestic home. They are ushered into his drawing room, with him seated behind his lavish desk. The small group of them then take off their caps and hats and actually bow their heads a bit, as they stood in front of him… but never too close.
What helped to instigate failure by the striking miners in both films was the appearance of those good old scabs. In Matawan they were poor Italian immigrants and poor unemployed Blacks sent in by train; in Germinal they came mostly from within their own ranks. Now imagine if you would if there was a situation of having ‘ One Big Union’ in both of these cases. Imagine if all the coal miners and all paid labor in the entire region around the mines belonged to ‘ One Big Union’. There is no way that the owners could ever conceive of ending those strikes without first engaging in fair and open negotiations…Period! Of course, we know from historical labor studies that the owners usually resorted to using police and hired thug violence to quell strikes. Even then, this writer soundly believes that the presence of ‘ One Big Union’ would dissipate such tactics. When an overwhelming number of people stand together under the banner of one common cause…cooler heads by the bosses may just have to prevail. Perhaps I am too naive… perhaps not.