Blue Collar (1978): A reminder that a classless society is still a far-fetched dream


By Kanak Mishra

“Cinema is the greatest mirror of humanity’s struggle. You see this alternative world, but you’re a part of it. Everybody is a part of it. This is our world.” – Lav Diaz

At the heart of any artistic expression (including cinema) is our constant struggle with our own political biases and the realities of cultural discourse. The movie Blue Collar, set in 1978, is directed by Paul Schrader, an American director, screenwriter, and critic. In one of his most famous interviews, Schrader said, “I didn’t set out to make a left-wing film. While I was working on the script, I realized that it had come to a definite Marxist conclusion.” Along with Marxist underpinnings of labour-relations, some other underlying themes in the movie are union corruption, government’s sly attempts to delegitimize union efforts, class-consciousness, and race.

The movie starts with the classical scene of machinery whirring with workers set in the dirtiest and physically demanding job of the engine assembly department. This scene sets off the focal point of the movie based on capital and labour relations with the industries being the sight of production, alienation, capitalism, and, consequently, class relations.

The movie revolves around the life of three friends, Zeke, Jerry, and Smokey – the three Detroit autoworkers who plan on robbing their labour union. Their desperate plan, coupled with a night of mad drugs and sex, ended up turning their idea into a disaster. With no substantial finding from the robbery other than a ledger of illegal loans sanctioned by the union, their lives are about to take a dangerous turn. When the word spreads to the union, it devises a plan to kill Smokey (the first black man) whose death is portrayed as an industrial accident rather than a murder. This issue regarding compensation for workers’ death or total / partial disablement is prevalent in industrial establishments across the globe. A parallel can be drawn to various Indian Labour law disputes such as Mackinnon Mackenzie and Co. Private Ltd. V. Ibrahim Mahommad Issak, Rita Devi V. New India Assurance Co. Ltd and General Manager, B.E.S.T. Undertaking V. Mrs. Agnes wherein unless the disputes reached the Apex courts of the country, the lower courts or tribunals always ended up suppressing workers’ rights for a fair and just compensation despite the existence of countless beneficial legislations. All of which proves that the issue is not the insufficiency of legislations protecting labour relations but rather the inadequate implementation of the same.

In an attempt to show all the aspects of labour’s life, the movie depicts how mounting financial pressures affect their relationship with their families. While Smokey could not afford a family because of his debts, Zeke has stated more number of children than he has to get more money from the Union. Jerry, on the other hand, has a daughter so badly in need for braces that she ends up having a bloodied mouth in trying to mould a wire as braces. The workers escape this family pressure by sneaking out to a party where the women are used just like the drugs are for escaping everyday life. All of this paints a common consciousness of workers such as those that inhabit cities like Detroit. Their common consciousness is limited to thinking that a few buddies together can beat the capitalistic system and ensure that the worker’s rights, such as good wages, better working conditions, and leaves, are protected within the industry.

The act of defiance by the workers against the single institution (the union) determined to protect their rights seems cynical and shocking in the first impression of the movie, but it later subsides to expose the mistrust of collective action which acts as a breeding ground for class and race divisions. The last scene carefully pits Zeke (the second black man) with Jerry (the white man). This is where the racial underpinnings of the movie are the loudest. Zeke and Jerry end up at odds with each other because of Smokey’s death by the conspiracy of union and the government, While Zeke enters into a compromise, Jerry chooses to confide with the FBI. This unique plot also highlights how the workers are always manipulated into believing that the real fight is between corrupt and uncorrupt members of a union, rather than a battle between the labour and capitalistic structures. It is not astonishing in the least bit to see the class-divide to still be the same in our society where the norms of capitalism are so deeply entrenched that even after more than a hundred years of Marx’s death, his epiphany remains unchanged. It seems that the vicious circle of capitalism will haunt labour-rights jurisprudence for years to come, which is becoming more evident with regressive Ordinances being passed like the recent one by the U.P. government which heavily infringes on labour rights.

While no depiction of prima-facie racism exists between workers from the same class, a personal fight between Zeke and Jerry immediately incites racist slurs which might seem like the most hurtful thing to say in a fight between two close people. But it ultimately goes on to show how bureaucrats unveil the sword of racial divide to obscure the impact of working-class consciousness.

Another interesting theme brought to light by the movie is intersectionality. It is presented in the best possible way by showing how racism exists within class-boundaries. While a poor-black man has to bear the brunt of both the class-divide and the racial divide, the poor-white man, on the other hand, retains some amount of power owing to his racial privilege.

There is no denying that Blue Collar was indeed a movie way ahead of its time in portraying the intricacies of labour relations. The cynical unfolding of the story, where the three friends end up ditching their own labour union, takes one and all by a mind-boggling surprise. Even in today’s times, Blue Collar is yet another reminder that a classless society is still a far-fetched dream for the world where the capitalist structures will always pit those at the bottom rung against each other by hook or crook. In Smokey’s words, “They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, and the black against the white, to keep us in our place.”

Kanak Mishra
is currently admitted into the One-year LL.M. program at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA. She is a Penultimate Year Law Student at O. P. Jindal Global University. Her areas of interest are Human Rights, Environmental Law, Trade Law and Gender Studies. She believes that her intersectional understanding is helping her become a more politically informed individual.


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