Quite fittingly, Kartemquin Films’s documentary The Last Pullman Car is playing on WTTW on Labor Day at 10pm. If you missed our screening last fall, quite fittingly at the Pullman State Historic Site, we advise you to check it out. Here’s a bit about the film, a fumbling attempt to explain why it’s so great.
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For more than a hundred years, the Pullman company manufactured train cars in a company town far south of Chicago’s loop, which Chicago eventually gobbled up. By the 1960s and 1970s the union workers were well paid, finally, after the tumultuous history of labor versus owner in the twentieth century resulted in a more equitable distribution of wealth. But by the 1970s corporations no longer made actual things but instead moved money from one company to another, and multinationals gobbled up smaller businesses whose output they had little interest in. No longer tied to a locale and its population, the companies started shipping jobs overseas, and you can see the aftermath if you drive through any former industrial city in the north or northeast.
That process of divestment from responsibility to employees and their families is the subject of The Last Pullman Car, one of Chicago documentary group Kartemquin Films’s many incisive documentaries about social injustice. In a brisk 55 minutes, director and Kartemquin founder Gordon Quinn depicts the entire history of labor in the twentieth century as a steep bell curve of decades of disappointment interrupted by a brief, glorious time when the relationship between employer and employee was not characterized solely by exploitation. It follows the leaders and members of US Steelworkers Local 1834 as they try, unsuccessfully, to keep the Pullman Company from closing down their factory.
This isn’t an exciting story of marches, rallies, and waving signs: it shows the painful process of labor negotiation as a Kafkaesque tapestry of endless meetings and disappointment. Local 1834 president John Bowman brings bad news to his fellow workers and the bewildered rank-and-file try to process it; Bowman and others on the negotiating team meet with company representatives, then return to the local with more bad news, or return with good news that turns out to be bad news or a promise that the company eventually breaks. They travel to the state capital in Springfield and try to meet with their elected representatives, who seem incredulous that anyone would dare put the brakes on the dismantling of the American industrial system. Eventually, even the national union itself reveals itself to be just another huge faceless entity that’s uninterested in the needs of individuals: after losing the fight to keep the factory open, Bowman and his fellow workers, bewildered and betrayed, muster what strength they have left to fight their own union, whose policies dictate that because these workers are no longer associated with a factory, they can no longer be a functioning chapter or use the money they raised through their dues to continue their fight for jobs, whether with Pullman or with another company that might reopen the factory.
What’s great about this film, and many Kartemquin documentaries, is that it develops a theme that feels central to the history of Western civilization: the ordinary person called to greatness by circumstance. I’m only exaggerating a little when I compare union local president Bowman to people like George Washington. He’s clearly uncomfortable in the spotlight, he’s not the most assured speaker, his grammar may not be perfect, he might have a pretty awful combover and might tend to wear polyester polo shirts, and he may speak with the heavy accent of south Chicago. But all of this actually makes him come across as a greater leader, as he represents the best of his working brethren, embodying their honesty and dedication to their work. He’s truly the voice of the people, not just these particular steelworkers but the American laborer.