If you’re ever tempted to feel nostalgic for the days before NAFTA, Paul Schrader’s directorial debut might provide some cold satisfaction. Those “good jobs” Democratic politicians are always talking about never really existed. Factory work was a trap, a poorly paid, debt-ridden hell caught between corrupt, mobbed up unions, and a spiteful, authoritarian management.
Harvey Keitel, Yaphet Kotto, and Richard Pryor play Jerry Bartowski, Smokey James, and Zeke Brown, three friends who work on the assembly line of the Checker Motor Company in Detroit Michigan. None of them is going anywhere, and they know it. Bartowski and his wife, who are living check to check, can barely stay one step ahead of the bills, and can certainly not afford badly needed braces for their daughter. James, a hulking ex con who did three years in prison for accidentally assaulting a police officer, knows society is rigged against him, but since he can’t think of a way out, contents himself with cheap hedonism, drugs, partying, and women. Zeke Brown, their leader, is a natural born rebel and troublemaker, always giving the incompetent, and indifferent shop steward a hard time for not adequately representing the workers. It’s Brown who figures out a way to rebel, and eventually leads them all to their doom.
If Blue Collar has any faults, from my leftist point of view anyway, is that it’s a right-wing movie in sheep’s clothing, a Reaganite justification for union busting two years before Reagan was elected President. Don’t let the superficially proletarian nature of the heroes fool you. Bartowski, James, and Zeke Brown aren’t auto workers. They’re quick talking actors pretending to be auto workers. We also know that Hollywood screenwriters and directors like Schrader hate unions. Why do you think they make so many movies in Vancouver? Clarence Hill, the tyrannical yet whiny and strangely ineffectual factory foreman played by Lane Smith, may badger his subordinates to “get back to work” and drop an occasional racist remark, but in the end there’s barely a capitalist villain in sight. The United Auto Workers Union, on the other hand, might just as well be the mob. In fact, it is the mob. One day, after Zeke Brown is given a bill by the IRS for $2000 dollars, which for him might as well be $2 million dollars, he comes up with a plan to rob the vault at the UAW local, which reputedly contains at least $10,000. The three friends successfully break into the union hall, knock out the guard with a power drill, and make off with the safe.
When they get it back to the workshop of one of James’ friends from the penitentiary, and cut up open the doors, they find, to their great disappointment, that it only contains $600 dollars in petty cash. Zeke Brown, however, is smart enough to figure out that if the $10,000 isn’t in the safe, it must have gone somewhere. Combing through a book of transactions, also in the safe, he figures out that Eddie Johnson, the corrupt local union President, is using their union dues to run a loan sharking business on the side. From the very beginning of the film, John Burrows, an FBI agent, has been conducting an investigation of the Checkers Motors Local, trying to get someone to open up about Eddie Johnson, and Schrader is basically in favor of snitching. If Bartowski, James, or Brown had only gone to Burrows in the first place, he strongly implies, they would have saved themselves, and their fellow autoworkers, a world of a pain. Instead they try to blackmail Eddie Johnson into giving them the $10,000 he’s been using for his loansharking business. Inevitably, their plans lead to disaster.
If Blue Collar has any strengths, it’s how accurately it expresses the typical working-class man’s rage against a corrupt union bureaucracy, and how well it understands the way the ruling class pits us against one another. In the age of Hillary Clinton, where the Democrats have figured out how to use identity politics to keep the rabble fighting one another instead of Wall Street, and where bureaucratic, out of touch unions like SEIU are clearly in the the tank for the establishment, it can’t be stressed enough just how important this message is. Smokey James, more than anybody, gets how it works.
“Why do you go to the line every Friday? Because the finance man’s gonna be at your house on Saturday, right? That’s exactly what the company wants – to keep you on their line. They’ll do anything to keep you on their line. They pit the lifers against the new boys, the old against the young, the black against the white – everybody to keep us in our place.”
After the union has Smoky James murdered in a surreal and incredibly powerful scene, which probably expresses the hell of factory work even better than Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Zeke Brown and Jerry Bartowski end up at each other’s throats. Eddie Johnson, knowing that Brown is the kind of superior man from the working-class who can be neutralized most effectively by giving him a little power, offers him the shop steward’s position in exchange for the book documenting the union’s loan-sharking. The way Brown justifies his decision to Bartowski with a speech about his white privilege that could have been taken from yesterday’s edition of Slate or Salon. Bartowski, in turn, decides to snitch on his former friend, finally going John Burrows to turn state’s evidence, and, in turn, proving Brown right. “I can’t go to the government,” he had said earlier. “They won’t protect me like they’d protect a white man,” and we not only remember the IRS leaning on Brown for the $2000 dollars, we also realize that, from the very beginning, Burrows had sidled up to Bartowski, favoring him over his two black fiends. Blue Collar ends with Brown, the newly appointed, and already co opted shop steward, and Bartowski, the federal snitch, picking up weapons, hurling racial and ethnic slurs at each other, and getting ready to attack. The movie’s final frame is as powerful an image of the defeated American working class as has ever been put on the big screen.