Watch and Learn: The Wire and Labor Unions

Often cited as one of the best television shows ever, the HBO crime drama The Wire spent five seasons mingling gripping crime drama with social issues through the gritty streets of Baltimore and the law enforcement that patrolled it. Usually, the show focused on one major institution per season, with the constant undercurrent of the drug trade. The show ended ten years ago but even with its ubiquitous flip phones, pay phones, and beepers, it feels as fresh as if it were still on the air.  

It's a bummer to watch The Wire if you have no one to talk with about it. Luckily, starting September 12th, Warm Cookies of the Revolution and the Sie Film Center are partnering to show one episode per season every Wednesday with discussion to follow. September 19th's showing will be an episode  from the second season, with discussion from community members to follow (full details here). 

The Wire was famous for highlighting a major Baltimore institution every season and its effects on the city. Without giving too much away, the second season is a tangle of the drug trade and human trafficking. Baltimore PD focuses on the seaport as a major inlet for illegal activity, some of which is facilitated by stevedores (a.k.a. "longshoremen" or dockworkers) who work it. One of the main characters, Frank Sobotka, is the secretary-treasurer for his local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores (IBS), a (fictional) labor union. It emerges quickly in the season that Sobotka uses his position to do some shady dealing in order to offset the impact industry changes are making to his family and other dockworkers' livelihoods.

The Wire is also famous for not taking a black-and-white look at the issues it dramatizes on screen. Despite the undercurrent of corruption running through the IBS, the show looks critically at a city turning away from its blue-collar dockworkers, who are being squeezed by forces like gentrification, fickle political favor, and the potential automation of their jobs. At the same time, it is the union rules about senior workers' first dibs on the day's work that drive Sobotka's young relatives to seek the dark underside of their industry.

Watching the show got me thinking about unions, which have been in the news a lot lately. If you follow the news, you've probably heard about teacher strikes around the country, including in Colorado. Over the summer, the Supreme Court's decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, which overturned a 40-year-old decision in which the Court ruled that not non-union public sector workers must pay agency fees, i.e., those related to collective bargaining as opposed to union dues. For more information, you can look at SCOTUSBlog's coverage on the case.

Union membership is in large decline around the US. PBS's News Hour recently reported the results of a national survey that although union membership is half of what it was thirty-five years ago, interest in it is at a forty-year high. The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Colorado has a lower rate of union membership in a time of nationally low membership. However, I grew up hearing people repeat the misconception that Colorado is what's called a "right to work state"—not to be confused with an "employment-at-will" state. Instead of a right-to-work law, Colorado has a unique piece of legislation known as the Labor Peace Act, which is a compromise between these two labor forces. You can read more about on the State's Department of Labor and Employment website.

If you don't know anything about unions, your library card grants you access to a number of databases on the topic of legal information, including Legal Information Reference Center, which contains eBook versions of guides from the Legal Publisher NOLO. To get an introduction to what unions are, Your Rights in the Workplace has a five-page chapter in Your Rights in the Workplace on this complicated issue. If you're interested in the big-picture history of labor relations in the United States, you can search Gale Virtual Reference library to find articles such as this "Labor and Labor Practices" article from Supreme Court Drama: Cases that Changed America.

Many of our databases contain in-depth, historical information pertaining to organized labor. To name one example, U.S. History in Context provides an array of sources in "The Rise of Organized Labor." You can also search our Western History website to find details about Colorado's role in the labor movement, like the Ludlow Massacre of 1914

This is also an issue that is evolving. Use DPL's extensive online coverage of local and major papers to learn more and keep on top of what is happening in the world of labor relations. For longer pieces, the database CQ Researcher creates reports that look in-depth at both sides of issues. In this case, 2015's "Unions at the Crossroads" examines the state of the unions (so to speak), while last month's "Education Funding" focuses more on issues brought up by the recent spate of teacher's strikes. Oh hey, The Wire's fourth season is all about the education system.... 

So what are you waiting for? You have just under a week to get reading and/or watch the show, and discuss what you learn with local civic-minded types. And if you've already seen all of Season 2 or don't mind spoilers, you can see how things really went down in Baltimore in this piece from the now-defunct City Paper (basically Baltimore's answer to Westword).  

Got questions? Ask Us or call Reference at 720.865.1363!  

The image used for this blog post comes from the National Archives. The source for this photograph of stevedores unloading a boat in New York City circa 1912 by Lewis Hine can be found here.

Written by Lauren on September 11, 2018


Linda M.Miller on September 14, 2018


A "new" resource for me !