An editorial about the incident in the Greensboro Daily News read, in part: “Gaston County is desperately near the mood to try a dozen or more malcontents for murder and condemn them for what they think of God, marriage and the Bible.”
In 1997, the year of the second union vote at the Tar Heel plant, attitudes towards union in North Carolina had not evolved much. The second vote was marked by the presence of Gaston County sheriff’s officers in riot gear, threats to union organizers and plant workers and a moment during the counting of the votes when the power at the plant went out.
The union lost that election, too, but the UFCW responded to Smithfield’s bad behavior with a lawsuit, heard before the National Labor Relations Board and referred to the courts for judgment.
That conflict lasted until 2006, when Smithfield, after years of appeals, finally lost the case. An appeals court forced the company to hire back everyone who had been fired for union activity, with back pay, and to allow for another union election, this time without the hijinks.
The story, Barr saw, already had everything: a big corporate enemy, a slew of hardworking underdogs fighting for better lives, a big-name product in every supermarket. There was a Pinkerton-like private police force deployed by Smithfield. There were heroes like Keith Ludlum, the war veteran who was the only fired worker to take his old job back after 12 years, just so he could help build support for the union; and Ronnie Simmons, who suffered through the plant’s earliest years.
Simmons, in later interviews, delivers what may be the most poignant line in Barr’s film. After seeing a worker become injured by a stampede of hogs, she noted that the worker was pushed aside while the hogs were tended to. She came to a stark realization.
“This is not a human job,” she said. “This is like an animal’s job.”
But this was before, when all Barr knew was that he had a story and a cause he could believe in. And he was unsure how it would turn out.
Wild Caught, he notes, was kind of a sad film. And With These Hands, was “really downbeat. We were in a closing factory covering its death knell.”
And he didn’t have high hopes for the union at Smithfield, either.
“They’re trying to destroy the unions in this country,” he says now in his office. “And they very likely will.”
Barr began in film inauspiciously, shooting 16mm with a wind-up camera when he was just 13. He got his undergrad degree from San Francisco State University and then bounced around UCLA’s film school for a few terms until he got his MFA in 1989. The idea had been to go into features then, and he wrote two successful scripts before matriculating at UCLA: the 1981 Wes Craven film Deadly Blessing, starring a young Sharon Stone, and “The Forgotten,” a made-for-TV movie starring Keith Carradine and Stacy Keach.
But as a product of his time and place, Barr had been involved politically as well. His first arrest came while at San Francisco State, at a protest demanding the school establish a Black Studies Department. That was where he met Danny Glover who would go on to become a big-name actor and then, later, would narrate Union Time.
“Danny was always very politically active,“ Barr says now.
Barr’s last arrest, he says, came at a Moral Monday march in Raleigh, in support of Rev. Barber.
In 1990, he made a film about hate crimes used as a training tool for police departments
His own big break came from a documentary called Carnival Train, made during five years spent with a traveling carnival troupe, working as a “jointy” at one of the games of skill, sleeping in the game kiosk and shooting still photography of the performers.
The film, which came out in 1999, almost didn’t happen. But when it did, he says, it got him his tenure at UNCG, where he has been since 1994.
Union Time, he knew, would have to be different than all his previous work. Without using the point of view of activism, as he had done in earlier films, or the tools of narration that he had applied in the past, this film must be a work of journalism.
“I knew from the get-go, in 2007, that this was a really complicated case,” he says, “and that there would be no point in doing a film that was overtly pro-union. I’m not anti-union, I’m pro-union. I’ve been in unions.
“It was important to make a story about the union that was essentially bulletproof,” he continues, “this way it would not be attacked legally, or be attached to the legacy of the RICO lawsuit [Smithfield] launched against the union, which I was very aware of. I had to worry about my own liability. We had to clear the film with [our lawyer], because they could still sue us. Everything had to be as bulletproof as possible.”
The result is a sort of oral history, with horrifying anecdotes from factory workers and organizers peppered with weighty analysis from academics, historians and labor lawyers. Some of the most inspirational moments come from the Revs. Barber and Johnson, emphasizing the connection between workers’ rights and civil rights.
“The struggle for workers’ rights implodes at the issue of race in the South,” Barber says early on in the film.
Among the film’s other chilling moments are the description of an ICE raid held at the plant in 2007, and still photos of the more gruesome injuries.
But the overarching theme is one of determination and endurance — from the opening of the plant to the establishment of the union, this organizing process took 16 years, and things didn’t always look so rosy.