The Inheritance

The Inheritance (Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, 1964) Fans of labor documentaries are divided into two groups: those who have seen The Inheritance more than 100 times and those who have not reached—but certainly will—this exalted status. This documentary truly deserves its reputation as a “classic,” for both its content and its production and a showing never fails to rouse the spirit of solidarity in everyone who watches it.

Produced in the mid-1960s by a union which no longer exists about traditions which have been buried by the years, The Inheritance set such a standard for labor documentaries that there have been virtually no other attempts at such a vast and comprehensive depiction of the American labor movement. At a time when labor history often deals with microscopic—and generally trivial--moments, this documentary had the ambition to try to squeeze 200 years of history into one hour.

This documentary was financially supported by the union, produced and constructed by a talented collection of blacklisted writers and musicians, with a stirring narrative by Robert Ryan (once cast, ironically, as a Communist in the movie I Married A Communist).The Inheritance tries to present the whole story of the labor movement in the United States from immigrants trudging through Ellis Island to the rise of industrial unionism. The documentary combines techniques which were, for the time, extraordinary: archival photos carefully panned and mixed with grainy movie footage, a variety of narrative voices, including expert reproduction of immigrant accents, creating an unsurpassed feeling for the workers movement.

Supporting the narration, the labor songs, supervised by Millard Lampell, a blacklisted member of The Almanac Singers, and sung by Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton and Judy Collins, are wonderful and seem, like the documentary as a whole, timeless. The strengths of this documentary are also its weakness: with its emphasis on the particular history of the ACWA, many of its figures and references—to the various strikes in the New York City needle trades, for example—may make it difficult for an audience of workers to understand. The documentary glories the ACWA’s first president, Sidney Hillman, and his dedication to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, with whom he had such a close relationship that “check it with Sidney” became a common expression of the New Deal. At the same time, a documentary showing the development of a union movement among immigrant workers seems timely in the 21st century when immigrant workers and their status are so controversial.

The documentary is openly partisan and free of any hesitation: most bosses are evil, industrial unionism is good, The New Deal is good, so is World War II, but not so much World War I. The nuclear arms race presents a problem and the civil rights movement, just reaching its full strength when the documentary was released, was a momentous social movement.

There is no higher tribute to this movie than its constant use, more than 40 years after its first release. Recently,, when a student in my labor studies program, working as an internal organizer for the CWA at Verizon, wanted a history of the union movement to show to a group of new stewards and mobilizers, without hesitation I gave her my copy of The Inheritance. Copies of the video (only in VHS format, I think) are still available through the Labor Heritage Foundation or the Illinois Labor History Society.
Bill Barry Community College of Baltimore County


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