DVD Review by Ian Kibbe
When I was asked to review Taylor Chain I & II: A Decade of Union Democracy and Collective Bargaining I immediately said yes. Not because I had a particular interest in documentaries about unions, but because I was a Kartemquin intern at the time, and saying "yes" is pretty much your primary responsibility as an intern. The truth was, I knew nothing about unions.
Growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the early 90's, Unions and union members were a vague idea at best. My earliest memory of union having an impact on my life was the baseball strike in 1994, and even then, we lived in a college basketball town and no one seemed to miss baseball. I'd read about unions in history class and I'd seen Norma Rae, but that's where any connection between my life and the life of a union laborer ended. I knew that unions created the eight hour work day, I knew that unions enforced worker's rights and improved working conditions; I knew that to many, "union" was a dirty word and a threat to the bottom line. And so when I said yes to writing this review I did so knowing that many people in Chicago have a long, rich union history to draw from, whereas I had a baseball strike and Sally Field.
Fortunately for me, Taylor Chain I & II: A Decade of Union Democracy and Collective Bargaining, recently released together on DVD, swept away much of my confusion in just over an hour.
Taylor Chain I: The Story of a Union Local, depicts the months long struggle of a local steel union at a small chain manufacturing plant in Indiana as it negotiates with management for a new three year contract. Shot in gritty black and white, the film opens with scenes of the factory where man and machine work to rend metal into chain. The creation of chain from raw material is an apt metaphor for the film as we follow union leaders and rank-and-file members through the negotiating process that eventually leads to a strike. Union members argue, they talk about their concerns, they voice their complaints, and share their desires. From tense votes held in the union hall to moments of camaraderie on the picket line, we watch as a labor union is tested and strengthened. In this metaphor people are the raw material from which a union is formed, democracy the process.
Taylor Chain II: A Story of Collective Bargaining picks up ten years later at the same plant. The plant is under new management, the country is in the middle of a recession, manufacturing plants face increased foreign competition and new legislation threatens labor unions across the country. Where Taylor Chain I focused primarily on the side of the labor union, Taylor Chain II, shot in color, cranks up the magnification on the microscope by taking us inside the negotiations between labor and management as the two sides work together to save the plant from going under. It should be noted that Taylor Chain II was the first U.S. film to go behind closed doors into the negotiations between a union and management.
The two films complement each other exceptionally and as soon as the first is over, you want to watch the next. Like owning a good television series on DVD, having the two films together and watching them back-to-back without having to wait until next week is incredibly gratifying.
Perhaps as interesting as the two films are the DVD extras: a study guide from the original film release, industrial still photos by Tom Sullens and interviews with the filmmakers, a former Taylor Chain employee, and the former Taylor Chain president. In the interviews with the filmmakers, Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal touch on several of the core philosophies at the heart of all Kartemquin films. For the budding filmmakers out there, there are even a few invaluable lessons about how to shoot documentaries and the importance of good audio coverage.
Even after almost 30 years, Taylor Chain is engaging and relevant. This relevance is in part due to our current economic climate where layoffs and plant closings are common newspaper reading (at least until those newspapers we're reading are forced to close), but this is also due in large part to its filmmakers. Like so many of Kartemquin's films, Taylor Chain's story allows us as viewers to really connect with its subject. At its heart this film is about people struggling with the same issues that we all encounter everyday: security, community, and relationships. From the shared laugh at the back of the union hall, to the staff man lighting the wrong end of a cigarette before a tense crowd we experience moments that make the story real to us. You may never have worked in a chain factory, but chances are you've feared for your job. You may never have delivered difficult news to a group of frustrated union workers, but you've probably told somebody something they didn't want to hear. You are not a person working for Taylor Chain, but you are a person and that is all it takes.
To be able to connect with people you have never met, in a place you have never been, and from a time you have never lived in is no easy feat, and while watching Taylor Chain hasn't made me an expert on unions, it has given me the opportunity to make a connection with one. It has given me something richer than Sally Field, more meaningful than a lost season of baseball. It has given me the same gift that Kartemquin offers everyone: the opportunity to connect.