The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Bread and Roses by Ken Loach:
a movie about L. A. janitors

Jun 25, 2001

Bread and Roses is a new film depicting the lives of janitors in Los Angeles who clean a high rise office building and their attempts to build a union.

The film is fiction, but it is based loosely on the Justice for Janitors organizing campaign which built local unions of the SEIU (Service Employees International Union) in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The story of Bread and Roses takes place in 1999 as a group of Mexican immigrants is smuggled over the border and brought to downtown Los Angeles. Obviously, their precarious situation makes them more vulnerable to terrible exploitation in the U.S. Many undocumented workers in this country are forced to accept working hand to mouth in day labor or peddling just to survive. When the main character in the film, Maya, lands a job as a janitor in a large office building, it is a step up, even though the job pays the minimum wage, even though her boss is a tyrant who takes out the equivalent of a month's pay from her first checks for the "privilege" of working for him.

The film, by Ken Loach, a well-known British director, whose best films have chronicled the stories of workers in Britain, captures the problems these workers face. Coming on the scene is Sam Shapiro, a former college student who became a union organizer. When he tries to organize this group of workers, most workers at first resist the idea because the company seems too powerful, while they feel weak. Some workers see the job as a stepping stone to a better job down the road. But when several workers are fired, most workers change their minds.

Where the film falls short is that it doesn't really depict how the workers organize their own power to take on the company. Instead, the movie shows that much of the fight is carried out by Sam, the union organizer, whose strategy seems to depend on being able to embarrass the building managers and owners, such as when he barges into a fancy restaurant or when he and other workers crash a party in the building held by one of the building's owners. In these scenes the workers appear to be assistants to the union organizer.

These scenes do not even hint at what the janitors really had to do just to force the cleaning companies to accept their union. For example, in 1991, a large Justice for Janitors demonstration outside the Century City complex was attacked savagely. L.A. police beat and arrested hundreds of demonstrators. But this attack called forth widespread protests by janitors and their supporters. It was this expansion of the fight that led several of the largest cleaning companies to officially recognize the union and negotiate the first contract.

That said, Bread and Roses is worth seeing because it tackles some of the problems and conditions that an important section of the working class faces, even if it doesn't really show what workers have done when they decide to fight against those conditions.