Local labor groups have plenty of experience battling governments and executives. But this year, organizers of the annual D.C. Labor Film Fest encountered surprising opposition from people in their own camp.
Some local union supporters weren’t too happy with the festival’s decision to show All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula‘s 1976 film about the Washington Post‘s investigation of the Watergate scandal.
“It has no place,” says Fred Solowey, a D.C. labor activist and writer who previously served on the festival’s screening committee. “To suggest that this was in any way an appropriate film for a union venue is absurd.”
After all, the Washington Post has a long history of alienating organized labor. Just earlier this year, the Washington Teachers’ Union picketed outside the newspaper’s headquarters on 15th Street NW in protest of its editorial board’s perceived anti-teacher bias. The WaPo board has repeatedly lashed out at Montgomery County firefighter and police unions, accusing them of sapping county resources. Moreover, the company’s own business practices have been criticized as anti-union. The Post has clashed with its unionized employees plenty of times, most recently in 2007, when the Communications Workers of America launched a publicity campaign against WaPo on behalf of the company’s production workers. As recently as 2002, Post guild members have led successful byline strikes in response to slow contract negotiations. (Disclosure: I’m a former Post employee.)
But animosity toward the film festival’s selection taps an even deeper reserve of bitterness—-one that dates back to the infamous 1975-76 Washington Post pressmen’s strike that destroyed the pressmen’s union and unleashed indictments against 15 strikers. (Solowey served as co-chair of the pressmen’s legal defense committee; he also wrote a piece in the City Paper on the strike’s 20th anniversary.) Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, celebrated as heroes in the film, continued to work during the strike—-clearly, a cardinal sin for organized labor.
Festival director Chris Garlock, who also works for the AFL-CIO’s Metropolitan Washington Council, agrees that the media company’s post-Watergate labor record is abysmal. But contrary to Solowey and the dozen or so people who contacted him voicing their concerns, he doesn’t think that the film is a tasteless choice for the Labor Film Fest. Garlock and festival co-chair Jos Williams responded to the concerned parties in a statement: “While we obviously share the concerns raised about the Post’s current and past anti-union actions, the 1975 Pressmen’s strike came after the events depicted in All The President’s Men. That the Post soon thereafter became a union-buster should not taint the paper’s courage at the time in taking on corruption and abuses of power at the highest levels of our government.”
In a phone call, Garlock says, “We are not giving the Post, by any stretch of the imagination, a pass.” He adds, “The Post today, we’ve got a problem with them. But that’s not the Post in 1973. The movie is not about that.”
After reading the statement, Solowey maintains that the festival’s directors don’t get it. “In the context of labor,” he says, “any good reporting Woodward and Bernstein did is negated by their being scabs.”
As of today, the film is still scheduled to show Friday night as part of the fest’s third annual Whistleblower Series. Garlock is planning to bring up the company’s post-Watergate labor record at some time during the evening, in addition to a post-movie talk with two modern-day whistleblowers Thomas Tamm and Thomas Andrews Drake. The organizers have also added language about the Post‘s labor history to the festival’s website. Garlock remains optimistic that the controversy will contribute to a healthy dialogue.
“Usually the conflict is up on the screen,” says Garlock. But “every now and then it comes off the screen.”