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Ken Loach's movie shows the struggle to win justice for janitors
Bread and roses

Movies: Bread and Roses, directed by Ken Loach, written by Paul Laverty, starring Pilar Padilla, Adrien Brody and Elpidia Carrillo.

Review by Derek Wright | April 27, 2001 | Page 9

BRITISH SOCIALIST film director Ken Loach's Bread and Roses, which opens in the U.S. in May, is a fantastic movie. It's about the real-life struggle of Los Angeles janitors to unionize and win a living wage, health care and respect on the job.

Set in the summer of 1999, the film follows a fictional group of janitors as they face a rotten boss in a nonunion building and try to win improvements through collective action. The film addresses a number of important issues: the difficulties of organizing and the bosses' anti-union tricks, the lack of health care in "the richest county in the world," sexism and the oppression of immigrant workers. But it also shows the power of collective action--and makes the slogan of the labor movement "Si se puede!" ("Yes, it can be done") come alive.

The powerful opening scene shows Maya (Pilar Padilla), an immigrant from Mexico, as she and a small group cross the border into California. Two men smuggle them into Los Angeles for a huge fee. When Maya's sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) comes up short of cash, the smugglers refuse to let her go. They kidnap her--and rape her that night. In a nerve-wrenching scene, Rosa escapes to unite with her family.

Rosa helps Maya get a cleaning job with Angel, the misnamed nonunion company that pays poverty wages and refuses to offer any benefits. The movie shows Rosa and her coworkers struggling to survive--with their daily lives in a constant state of crisis and management bearing down.

A co-worker explains his theory about the company's uniforms: "They make us invisible." Yet by the end of the movie, the janitors are anything but invisible.

As Maya is cleaning one night, she helps Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody), an organizer for the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) Justice for Janitors campaign, escape building security. Eventually, Maya and her coworkers call on Sam to help them organize.

When they attend a rally organized by Justice for Janitors, it is, for many, their first experience of solidarity. "I see a lot of students, workers from other buildings, and supporters here," one speaker tells the crowd. "That's wonderful, because it reminds me that we always have more strength than we realize. Always!"

Maya and her coworkers organize a number of actions to put pressure on Angel, including informational pickets and, finally, a march and building occupation. During the occupation, Sam points out a banner that reads, "We want bread, but roses too"--and explains that the slogan comes from the famous 1912 Lawrence textile strike.

Bread and Roses doesn't offer pie-in-the-sky conclusions. It shows how divisions among the workers play out and the hard sacrifices that Maya and her coworkers have to make. Management takes its revenge, firing many workers for their involvement with the union and engineering the deportation of several.

The film also asks tough questions about the labor movement. At one point, an SEIU official threatens to pull Sam off the Angel campaign to organize "an easier target," complaining that he doesn't want to waste union money. "What," Sam replies, "you won't have $40 million to give to the Democrats in the next election?"

Plus, Sam himself, as a paid organizer, is set apart from the workers. "What do you risk?" Maya asks Sam at one point. "Nothing." Don't miss Bread and Roses--it's a must see.

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