The ghost of Tom Joad...a Labor Day saga

John J. Hopkins Sep. 3, 2006, 10:58am

The John Ford-directed classic "The Grapes of Wrath" is ranked 21st on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 greatest films, and is one of my personal favorites.

Based on John Steinbeck's most famous novel, it tells the story of the Joad family, a poor lot from Oklahoma forcibly dispossessed from their land by forces they are powerless to resist.

Victims of the Dustbowl, victims of a heartless banking industry, victims of the poverty brought forth by the Great Depression, the Joads must leave their home of many generations and travel west to California, in search of not just a better life, but indeed, any life at all.

Their journey is long and hard, with misfortunes aplenty. Alas, the Golden Promise Land holds no flowing milk and honey, only the stark reality of back breaking labor, when gratefully available. They become captive to a virtual slave labor existence, a system of "Bosses," enlightened souls who believe that anybody who wants more than thirty cents an hour to work in the fields is "a no good Red, Union agitator."

But the Joads refuse to buckle under, steadfastly moving forward despite all obstacles in their path. Ma Joad, the matriarchal head of the family, holds them together through the worst of times. She sums up why - no matter what indignities are heaped upon them, they cannot be defeated with her simple line at the film's end. - "Because we're the people."

I turn to the "Grapes of Wrath" as the metaphor for the spirit of Labor Day, the last of the summer holidays, the one set aside to honor the American Labor movement.

Hubert H. Humphrey, the late senator from Minnesota and vice president under LBJ, and a sure friend to every working man and woman, said it best: "The history of the Labor movement is the history of America. It should be taught in every school in the country."

Regrettably, Humphrey's vision was not to be.

Organized labor stands not in the forefront of the American conscience, but an ofttimes sadly overlooked afterthought. The struggles of the past to bring about economic and social equality, the fights for a fair day's wage for a fair day's work, the battle for safety in the workplace, all have been sadly forgotten, some may say forfeited by a host of activities that have diluted the power of labor as a force in society.

Internal dissensions in the ranks that grew into schisms in the AFL-CIO between historical allies, the inclusion of teachers and civil service employees, with their resultant strikes against the public interest, as well as the general public desire to shop cheap - union made, American made be damned -- have all served to sap the appreciation or even the recognition of labor's past.

With battles yet to be won - the fight for a long overdue raise in the minimum wage, the struggle against the growing trend of "globalization" ushered in during the Clinton years, with its terminal effect on small but still Union shops unable to compete against subsidized foreign competition, and the growing threat of legalized immunity for corporate recklessness disguised as "tort reform', now is the time is for strength through unity, not weakness from division.

The great victories of the past were achieved through sacrifice and a recognition of the power of Solidarity. It needs be much more than the words to a song. It needs to be the credo of a resolution that recognizes the dignity of all, and the interdependency of neighbor to neighbor.

Tom Joad, the family's oldest son, returns in the beginning of the movie from a four-year prison term to find the family in ruins.

Brilliantly played by a young Henry Fonda, Tom Joad carries the film's central theme, speaking to his mother as he prepares to go underground, this time never to return.

".... Well, Ma, maybe it's like Casey says. A fella ain't got a soul of his own, just a little piece of the one big soul that belongs to everyone, then...

"...Then it don't matter. I be all around on the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you look - I'll be around. Wherever there's a fight so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Whenever there's a cop beating up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad, the ways kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in houses they built - I be there, too."

With an appropriate tip of the cap to Bruce Springstein, the ghost of Tom Joad IS the spirit of American labor. It is the spirit of the agitator, standing up to the powerful on behalf of the powerless, refusing to compromise, refusing to be co-opted. Let us hope that some day, some day soon, his ghost will lead them back to their roots.

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