Bread and Roses
Directed by Ken Loach
Bread and Roses, Ken Loach's first picture made in the
United States, is set inside a fictional 1999 Justice for Janitors
immigrant workers organizing drive in Los Angeles. It is, like all
Loach films, unabashedly pro-working class, pro-struggle, anti-boss.
For this, some critics call Loach didactic, his characters black-and-white.
Anthony Lane, The New Yorker's reviewer, squirmed through
the 12-minute meeting scene in Loach's Land and Freedom in
which peasants in the Spanish revolution debate appropriation of
the land. The Los Angeles Times deplored Bread and Roses'
"one-dimensional bad guys--bureaucratic security guards and evil
supervisors." But if you've had a blue-collar job, you've probably
known supervisors just like that. They may not beat their wives,
so, no, Loach doesn't show us a well-rounded picture of their complex
personalities. Because the picture is not about them. Bread and
Roses--again, like other Loach films--is about and for the people
who are not usually the subjects. It's about how they experience
a supervisor who charges a "commission" for hiring them, feels free
to insult them--"old bags, spastics"--and tells them they're lucky
to have a $5.75-an-hour job.
The film follows a new, undocumented Mexican immigrant, Maya (Pilar
Padilla), who joins her older sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), cleaning
high-rises in Los Angeles. For Maya, vacuuming on the night shift
is preferable to fending off drunks as a barmaid. But she is moved
to act when the supervisor fires a co-worker, an older woman who,
he says, can't keep up. We know from the first scene, when Maya
is just out of the coyote's van, that she is a person of uncommon
resourcefulness. Loach is reminding us that this is a characteristic
many immigrants share; they've had to be sharp, the risk-takers,
or they wouldn't be here.
But the janitors are not all of one mind about how to succeed in
their new country. In one scene, a union organizer housecalls Maya
and Rosa: "Hi, I'm Sam Shapiro from the Justice for Janitors campaign."
"Hello, I'm Rosa from the justice for Rosa campaign," Rosa snaps
back, and orders Sam out of the house. "Don't ever say 'we,' " she
rebukes him, calling him a white boy and a college kid.
Are we supposed to see Sam (Adrien Brody) simply as clever and
dedicated, which he certainly is? Or does he also embody the criticisms
made of some union campaigns: that they are run top-down, with the
workers following the ingenious strategies laid out by professional
organizers who've never mopped a floor? Sam's favorite phrase is
"Listen up!" as he tells the janitors what will happen next. At
a confrontation with building owners, he and a fellow organizer
make the speeches, although we have seen earlier that there are
workers perfectly capable of doing so, and in English.
In a 1999 interview, Loach told me that screenwriter Paul Laverty
had been in L.A. for a year, spending time with janitors and with
organizers who worked on the original Justice for Janitors campaign
in 1990. I believe Laverty and Loach got it all--the subtlety that
yes, these workers need a union, and that no, unions (and organizers,
and workers) are not perfect. There's a marvelous scene where Sam's
superior in the union explodes--"Three injunctions in two days!"--and
tells him to cool it. This is not the way some Justice for Janitors
campaigns have worked--the union higher-ups in those battles have
been quite willing to use militant tactics.
But the film is dead-on when it comes to most union conflicts.
During the recently concluded Detroit newspaper strike, for example,
a union staffer who suggested the union could defy a crippling injunction
was threatened with firing. When the real L.A. janitors won their
union in 1990--through massive civil disobedience--they did not
get their own local, but instead were thrown into a 25,000-member
behemoth run in the traditional bureaucratic fashion. They formed
a dissident slate, won the union election--and then saw the local
thrown into trusteeship by John Sweeney, then the president of the
By the end of Bread and Roses, we're left not knowing how
the janitors will resolve such tensions. Sam says, "It's over,"
and that is the least true moment in the film. Ken Loach has respected
his viewers enough to let us figure that out for ourselves.
Jane Slaughter is an In These Times contributing