Political Film Society - Newsletter #104 - June 1, 2001

June 1, 2001


Bread and RosesForty million persons have no medical insurance in the richest country in the world, the United States. Among the uninsured are recent immigrants, who often work at wages below the minimum allowed by law while immigration quotas are not relaxed to allow badly needed unskilled laborers into the country legally. In Bread and Roses, British director Ken Loach focuses on nonunion Los Angeles janitors who in 1999 earn $5.75 per hour without benefits. When the film begins, Maya (played by Pilar Padilla) is illegally transported across the border from México. Since her sister could not come up with all the money for the passage, she is forced to go to a seedy apartment to have sex with one of the two Mexican drivers. After escaping while he takes a shower, Maya locates her sister Rosa (played by Elpidia Carrillo), who in turn finds her a cleaning job with Angel, a janitor company in a downtown high-rise office building. While on the job, she observes her supervisor, Perez (played by George Lopez), arbitrarily fire an elderly Salvadoreña for arriving late without her glasses. Soon, a nice man asks to be smuggled in her trash bin to evade pursuing security guards. The man, Sam Shapiro (played by Adrien Brody), is a union organizer. Making the rounds of janitors in their homes, he explains at Rosa’s home that in 1982 union janitors in Los Angeles earned $8.50 per hour with benefits, whereas in 1999 the Angel company underbids union janitor companies by paying below-minimum wages. Rosa is hostile and orders him to leave the home. Although Rosa is legally in the country, many workers are undocumented and fearful. Maya, nevertheless, decides to participate in the union drive, which grows as more workers are discharged. Eventually, Maya is fired when Rosa rats on her and others who want union wages. Among those fired is Maya’s good friend Rubén (played by Alonso Chavez), who desperately needs money to match a grant to attend law school.

Eventually, Angel capitulates after the union organizers pull several stunts, culminating in a march with pickets into the building serviced by Angel, whereupon arrests of the protesters appear on television. The fingerprints of Rosa, who earlier robbed a cash register to help Rubén, match those on file for the robbery, so she is deported.

Several important points are made in the film. Rosa, who sent remittances to feed Maya and her family in México, admits that she came up with the money and secured Maya her job by turning tricks. Rosa, it turns out, identified the workers seeking unionization to get a higher-paying job with Angel, a company that clearly violates the Fair Labor Standards Act by paying below-minimum wages and even flouts a court order to allow workers time off for lunch. Angel, of course, was calculating that there would be no sympathy for janitors; indeed, one janitor says to another early in the film, "When we put on uniforms, we become invisible." But one meaning of the word "strike" is to become visible. In order to inspire and to train workers for demonstrations, Shapiro shows a video of the success of the 1990 Justice for Janitors strike at Century City, Los Angeles, the very event on which Bread and Roses is based. At the rally inside the office building, Shapiro reminds the workers of the "bread and roses" demand for decent wages and management respect by the 30,000 textile mill workers of Lawrence, Massachusetts, where the first multiethnic strike of men and women in American history in 1912 protested wage cuts and won after two months of support from the townspeople. In Bread and Roses, Angel capitulates even while the arrested demonstrators are being processed in jail. The film’s tagline hints at the ending: "The balance of power is about to change." With subtitles in English and Spanish, as the characters slip in and out of the two languages, speaking "Spanglish," Bread and Roses offers a powerful glimpse at how immigrants and janitors are unlawfully exploited and what unions can do to help. Accordingly, Bread and Roses has been nominated by the Political Film Society for best film exposé, best film promoting democracy (specifically, industrial democracy), and best film on human rights for the year 2001. MH