The California Federation of Teachers (CFT) released an eight-minute video this week called Tax the Rich: An Animated Fairy Tale. According to the California Federation of Teachers web site, the video is “narrated by Ed Asner, with animation by award-winning artist Mike Konopacki, and written and directed by Fred Glass for the California Federation of Teachers.” It argues the case for higher taxes on rich people in the context of a socioeconomic framework based on class exploitation.
A segment in the original release of the video depicted a rich man urinating on the poor to symbolize “trickle-down economics.” This imagery earned some negative news media attention (see links below), which probably explains why the original video is now labeled “private” and original web links to California union press releases about the video do not work (see dead links below).
I’m familiar with a much longer film produced by Fred Glass: the 1999 documentary Golden Lands, Working Hands he developed for California high school students. As seen in Tax the Rich: An Animated Fairy Tale, the same simplistic view of historical events from the perspective of class consciousness pervades this video, too. It also includes a cartoon (with a rap).
Here’s my report on that film, excerpted from my 2002 article “Labor History in Public Schools: Unions Get ‘Em While They’re Young” in the journal Government Union Review:
High school students may watch a 10-part video series written and directed by the California Federation of Teachers’ communications director, Fred Glass, who is also a union organizer and labor studies professor. Funded by the AFL-CIO, the California Labor Federation and several individual unions, the Golden Lands, Working Hands video series explains California labor history from the union point of view. Michelle Vesecky at the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education recognized the unprecedented achievement of this video in her article “Golden Lands, Working Hands: The History of the Future:”
Other states, such as Minnesota, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan, New Jersey, and Virginia have already developed labor history programs. However, Golden Lands, Working Hands is groundbreaking. No other state has developed a curriculum as comprehensive as the CFT’s multi-media project. Golden Lands, Working Hands will be the first of its type to have both its own textbook and an hour long video.
While Glass claims the video series is “politics-proof” because it mentions past episodes of corruption and discrimination in organized labor, he has a political goal: encourage young people to join unions or organize employees at their workplace into a union. “Students who go through the Golden Lands, Working Hands unit will be in the workforce within a year or two … It will give them the knowledge necessary to be able to say ‘Union Yes’ if they are working in a place where they have that choice.” According to Glass,
(T)he video explores a great deal of the events and issues in the history of California labor and takes us right up to the present, dealing with current issues such as mass corporate ‘downsizing,’ part-time and temporary employment, inadequate health care coverage, and the battle for a living wage. It shows how today’s labor movement is attempting to reinvent its tradition of standing up for working people, and how it continues to make history in theprocess.
Vesecky at the Center for Labor Research and Education makes the intent clear: “The CFT plans to raise awareness in future workers, future voters, and future policymakers. Through education, hopefully worker empowerment will result.”
A theme of the video series is that life was relatively good for American workers when unions were at their zenith, and now life is a struggle for American workers because unions represent a much smaller percentage of the workforce. The classroom guide for teachers to use in conjunction with the video series summarizes the 22-minute long final segment in the series – “Golden Lands, New Demands” – as the story of how “a new corporate regime ruthlessly replaces full-time ‘middle class’ union jobs with part-time, temporary, ‘disposable’ employment.” But the summary notes that not all is lost: “In response, a new organizing mood emerges among California working people grappling with the effects of the global economy, spurring struggles for full-time work, living wages, health care and dignity.”
California working people struggling for dignity in the last segment of the Golden Lands, Working Hands video series include bike messengers, hotel workers, janitors, and college instructors targeted by current organizing campaigns. Departing from history into the realm of contemporary union politics, the segment depicts four examples of union activism: the “Justice for Janitors” organizing movement of the Service Employees International Union; the AFL-CIO “Union Summer” program in which mainly young participants work in internships as part of organizing campaigns; the “Living Wage” campaign for municipalities; and fighting “anti-union” politicians and proposals such as California’s Proposition 226, a “paycheck protection” proposal on the June 1998 ballot. Perhaps with the intention of introducing students to the struggles of young workers, the video focuses on efforts of some San Francisco bicycle messengers to organize into a union with the help of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Bike messengers complain that they need a union because their work is dangerous, they get low pay, they don’t get respect, and rich multi-national corporations are taking advantage of them.
Although the video obviously is biased toward presenting the union view of history, one area in which the Golden Lands, Working Hands video series becomes excessively simplistic in its politics is when it relates the 1992 Los Angeles riots to the decline of unions. According to the video, in the 1950s unions provided good jobs and were a responsible agent to address community frustration about racism. In the 1990s, without strong unions or good jobs, rioting provided the outlet to address racism. For students too young to remember the riots or understand the complicated causes behind them, this explanation is grossly incomplete.
Like the labor history program produced by the American Social History Project, the Golden Lands, Working Hands program emphasizes collective viewing and discussion. “Group screening and interaction can, at least potentially, create the energizing connection of ideas shared among people, on the basis of which they can act,” Glass writes. Not only does the content of labor history question the benefit of individualism in the workplace, but the methodology of teaching labor history seems to reject individualism in the classroom as well. Obviously the gentle guidance of the teacher combined with the peer pressure of fellow adolescents will lead students to a preordained positive conclusion about unions.
Now that Labor History Week is in effect, the California Federation of Teachers plans to implement the Golden Lands, Working Hands program as part of the California high school history curriculum, using teachers’ union locals and an anticipated recommendation from a future California History-Social Science Curriculum Framework and Criteria Committee to “allow the more rapid dispersion of the curriculum throughout the state’s school districts.”
…Will the Golden Lands, Working Hands video series inspire young people to support unions? Although testimonials, video footage, and even a pro-union rap cartoon video are included in the video series to stimulate student interest in a potentially dry topic, watching and understanding the video requires close attention and a knowledge of American and California history that may be too difficult an obstacle for most students, even with the teacher’s use of accompanying lesson plans and classroom guide. The best target for the unions’ labor history curriculum may be students in Advanced Placement American history classes.
See the broken links to the California Federation of Teachers’ announcement Animated Fairy Tale Makes the Case for Fair Taxation and the California Federation of Labor’s Labor’s Edge Blog: Tax the Rich – An Animated Fairy Tale.
News coverage for Tax the Rich: An Animated Fairy Tale:
Ed Asner Defends Crude Union Video, Asks to “Piss On” Fox News Producer – Fox News – December 5, 2012
California Teachers Union Video Shows Rich Man Urinating on Poor to Make Taxes Case – Fox News – December 5, 2012
Ed Asner Blasts Rich People in New Video – Wall Street Journal (blog) – December 5, 2012
Crass Warfare by Teachers’ Organization – San Francisco Chronicle (editorial) – December 5, 2012
Ed Asner Under Conservative Attack Over ‘Tax the Rich’ Teachers Union Video – Hollywood Reporter – December 4, 2012