Kartemquin Korner is a weekly-ish segment spotlighting a particular selection from Kartemquin Films, the finest documentary production company this side of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This week’s installment:

The Last Pullman Car (1982)

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The Last Pullman Car goes back to the Pullman strike of 1894 and then details the labor movement in the US in order to explain the state of labor relations at the Pullman plant in 1981.

 

Ok, I am not going to lie to you, my fellow Kartemquinites. This is a tough one. Watching a documentary about a group of heavy industry workers in the US heartland trying to save their union and their jobs at the beginning of the Reagan Era Corporate Globalization and Union Busting Program is somewhat like watching a documentary about gay Jewish performance artists in Berlin in 1936- you know it isn’t going to end well— either for the documentary subjects or for any of their contemporaries.

However, it is really a must-see for those who wish to understand how we got to the point where we are now in terms of the global stranglehold that multinational conglomerates have on humanity.

The Last Pullman Car documents the struggles of Pullman-Standard Passenger Car Works employees on the far south side of Chicago from 1979 to 1981 as they unsuccessfully fight to prevent their plant from being closed. United Steel Workers of America Local 1834 President John Bowman and the workers at the Pullman plant battled mightily and bravely to keep their plant open but were swamped by a tsunami of historical forces; short-sighted industrial policies, government abetted union busting, the rise of multi-national conglomerates, industrial competition from Germany and Japan, the gutting of mass-transit funding throughout the US, the withering of national union power overall, the flight of US industrial plants to other countries, and the brutal recession of the early 1980’s.

After an opening segment which introduces the workers and their quest, producer/director/writing team Gordon Quinn and Jerry Blumenthal go all the way back to the bitter and violent Pullman Strike of 1894 and then detail the subsequent industrial union movement in the US in order to illustrate how these forces came into being.

The Pullman Strike of 1894 quickly expanded into a national rail strike which was then brutally crushed by the US government at the behest of George Pullman and the Rail Trust. This only fueled the overall push for national unionization, which flowered in the early 20th Century and by the 1950’s had brought the industrial middle class of America into the highest standard of living that rank and file workers had ever known.

Of course the forces which seek to control workers and maximize corporate profits did not take this situation lying down, and there was a major push to roll back union gains as the 1950’s progressed. It is here where the highest echelon of union leadership made a grave tactical error, seeking to hold on to individual wages and benefit structures instead of trying to use their power to change society and government on a “macro” level such that corporations did not have such an undue influence on them. Basically winning several short term battles but losing the overall war, as US industrial monopolies steadily morphed into the multinational conglomerates of today.

Pullman was one of the first companies to do so, diversifying into other industries and expanding their global scope until the rail car making business was just a tiny fraction of their overall profit scheme. Once this was accomplished, Bowman and his cohorts were defeated before the battle had even begun. By 1979, the car manufacturing plant was so insignificant to the Pullman Corporation (who obviously wanted to be rid of it anyway) and the rail car industry was in such dire straights that threatening to shut the plant down with a strike was like threatening to kill a hostage with terminal cancer that your adversaries wanted dead to begin with.

This is something that the workers did not understand until it was much much too late; and it is heartbreaking to watch them struggle with this realization as they are sold down the river by their government and their national union (although by that point in the process the legislators and union brass aren’t really lying when they say their hands are tied). Simple, decent folks so imbued with a strong moral code that they were virtually unable to comprehend the fact that their opponents had no morality whatsoever (and essentially saw them as worthless) and so naïve about the reality of their position that they had no idea how badly the cards were stacked against them. At one point, after the national Steel Workers union forces them to shut down their local, Bowman says “If this is their answer to deal with plant closings in this country- the working man is in trouble.” This statement (for me) is pretty much the crux of the entire film.

The Last Pullman Car also begs extremely thorny questions which the world is still trying to answer: How can a community, city, or nation keep a company that wishes to move its factory from leaving without totally trashing the concept of private property and free market? Are these concepts as important to a free and just society as we have been led to believe? Do people have a “right” to a well paying job and is it the government’s duty to make certain that they do? If not, then what is the purpose of government in the first place?

These are not easy questions to resolve, but resolve them we must if we are to avoid a dystopian “Blade Runner meets The Jungle” future.

So as not to end this post on a total downer; it is my belief that in the long term this future will be avoided. With apologies to Abraham Lincoln- “You can oppress all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t oppress all of the people all of the time.”

Although globalization has temporarily given the conglomerates the upper hand as they abandon areas where unions are strong and move their plants to places where they can cheat their workers- the union movement has also grown global and is steadily spreading to those locales where sweatshops are the norm and those oppressed people are becoming empowered to throw off their shackles and agitate for fair treatment and decent wages. To revive the lingo of the 1960’s and 70’s—-The Man can run, but he cannot hide!

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Who is that handsome young man with the camera? Kartemquin Films co-founder Gordon Quinn would like to know! 😉