The Bush Administration’s eight-year reign over the United States reminded us how enigmatic national elections can be. It takes a special group of people to realign an election with the principles on which the process was originally founded. Moviemaker Glenn Silber understands this and has created an eye-opening documentary as a result. Labor Day tells the story of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)—the fastest growing labor union in the United States and a quiet, yet immeasurably influential organization behind the election of Barack Obama.
The story begins early in 2007, a time when the American worker began taking exception to his depreciated status in our society. The election was nearly two years away, but that didn’t stop the SEIU from coming together and working tirelessly behind the Barack Obama campaign in an effort to create the changes necessary for our future. Silber’s film, featuring interviews with the likes of Mos Def, Tom Morello and Grammy Award winner Steve Earle, strives to tell the story of change in a context we’ve never seen before.
Labor Day, the previously untold story of persistence and triumph, is set to premiere October 30, 2009. Silber told MM what it’s like making a documentary loaded with limitless passion and nail-biting uncertainty.
Michael Walsh (MM): The SEIU, though largely known as an influential labor union, had been relatively overlooked as a relevant factor in the 2008 Presidential election. How did you come across this (soon to be) uplifting story so few knew about?
Glenn Silber (GS): At the start of the 2008 campaign, like millions of other Americans, I was very upset at the direction the country had been going in. When I get mad, I make movies—and I wanted to get involved. My other Oscar-nominated films were about dramatic, political conflict in our nation’s history, and the 2008 campaign was going to be another big, dramatic historic moment—and I wanted to capture it in this film.
I had done consulting work for SEIU, covered some of their events and made some videos related to the 2008 campaign for them. As the campaign heated up, I was struck by a sense, as many people were, that something major was going on; we were at a crossroads as a country and this election truly was going to be the most important of my lifetime.
As a producer and filmmaker, I am always looking for great, inspiring stories, and I realized I had found it not just in the 2008 campaign, but also in the stories of regular working Americans who were urgently, ardently campaigning for change. I was moved by the people I met—the nurses, security guards, lab technicians, janitors and others—who left their homes for weeks and months, passionately campaigning for Obama and for the issues that matter most to them, such as health care. I proposed making a documentary and the SEIU gave us the green light. The resulting film, Labor Day, is an inspiring story of real-life politics practiced by regular working people who understood what was at stake and made a commitment to winning this election at all costs.
MM: Barack Obama spent a good amount of time during his campaign as the underdog. Did you fear the potential unhappy ending, or even consider giving up on Labor Day during difficult times?
GS: No, because we never really made a final decision to produce Labor Day until after the election. I had started out doing short videos for the union, including a 10-minute video on Barack Obama’s background as a community organizer and his relationship with SEIU in Illinois.
Going back to May of ’07, I had also produced videos of the Democratic candidates doing their “Walk A Day in My Shoes” program (which is in the film) where they would spend most of a day with a union member, be it a nurse, a social worker, a janitor, nursing home aide, etc. By the summer of 2008, I covered the Democratic Convention, as well as the big “Take Back Labor Day” concert in St. Paul, right across from the opening day events of the Republican Convention (also in the film).
So I was shooting all the great material, and they were putting it on their Website for like 47 people to see—and I started thinking that there was a much bigger story to tell than the sum of its parts.
So I just kept shooting and in the final three weeks of “Get Out the Vote” action, we had crews in something like seven swing states. By then I was feeling very good about Obama’s chances, and decided to follow it right to the end. I spent my last day in Hammond, Indiana, where hundreds of union members were trying to turn Indiana into a blue state for the first time in 40 years (which they did), and wound up, of course, in Grant Park for a very happy ending.
MM: What did you plan to do with Labor Day had Obama not won the election?
GS: If Obama hadn’t won the election, I probably wouldn’t have made such a heartbreaking film.
MM: How did the SEIU feel about the documentary while it was happening? Has their opinion changed?
GS: SEIU was supportive and provided us with unbelievable access to all kinds of events at conventions, but also on the ground with the nurses, lab technicians, security guards and other workers who left their homes and families to work door-to-door politics in the most critical swing states. But they were so busy during the final month of the “Get Out the Vote” push that they really didn’t have time to worry about me.
I would typically show up in a swing state for some “Get Out the Vote” action and would have no idea who or what I was going to shoot that day. This was a total on-the-fly operation and is unlike any other documentary I have ever made. There were no pre-interviews or “casting” for characters. I was just trying to capture the action and find union members I could talk to for 10-15 minutes. It was an incredible seat-of-the-pants operation.
Later, when I decided that I could use the election campaign framework as a great story, I went back and interviewed several of the union leaders, as well as two top political journalists (Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and Karen Tumulty of Time Magazine). That gave me the insight, analysis and commentary I needed to help create a narrative for all the material that we’d been shooting off and on over 18 months time.
Once I had those interviews in the can, which all went very well, I knew I could make a great story out of it. But the key for me was having a vision of what this film could be—and I had complete artistic and editorial control over the film which was really the only way I could do this project.
MM: What’s the most resounding message you hope to convey with Labor Day?
GS: It’s now been one year since the election. I think it’s a great time to see Labor Day and remember the passion and the urgency we felt. Part of the message in Labor Day is that regular, working people can mobilize with grassroots organizing and win by making such a huge commitment to work for change. I think Labor Day also demonstrates that as individuals, we don’t have much of a voice. When we all work together, people can accomplish just about anything, including electing the first African-American President of the United States.
Given where we are today, another key message of Labor Day comes from what Obama said on Election Night: “This victory alone is not the change we seek. It is only the chance for us to make that change.”
My hope is that the film will inspire people to feel that sense of urgency and passion once again, and that they will stay involved, connected and be part of winning the change we believe in. Obama’s only been in office for nine months. There’s still a lot of work to do.