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 Service Employees.

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 editor.


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