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April 9, 1984

An Enthralling Tale of Unions
'The Killing Floor' is well-written story of Chicago race riot

By Bill Hayden

The American union movement is a fertile ground for stories, but neither  idea-starved television nor films have harvested much from it.

The labor movement--particularly its early days and its organizing  efforts--offers a rich source for meaningful entertainment. It abounds  with idealism and dramatic conflict, two important ingredients needed to  hold any audience. It has an overabundance of heroes and villains. It  exalts the common man.  

Yet, less than a handful of recent motion pictures have drawn upon it  for inspiration. Most notable is Norma Rae. There's also been F.I.S.T.  and Blue Collar. But, that's about all.

There are even fewer recent network television productions. There's been  a television movie about the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire and a  miniseries about the head of a trucker's union.

There are a lot more than just five stories to be told about the unions,  most of them capable of making for enthralling dramatic entertainment.  To see just how powerful and provoking such drama can be, you need look  no further than the American Playhouse offering of The Killing Floor.

It is the story of  a dream and the men who tried to make it reality before its time had  come. It is a story of triumph and personal concern. It is... well, you  know, all those high-sounding words dealing with nobility, good  intentions, emotional impact and such.

But, most of all, it is engrossing, well-written, well-acted, convincingly filmed television.

Set in the Chicago stockyards during and immediately after World War I,  it tells of slaughterhouse workers trying to bring together black  migrants from the South and immigrants from Europe into a single,  interracial, industry-wide union.  

It is an effort doomed to fail because of the deep distrust the blacks  have not only of the whites running the stockyards, but also the whites  running the union. As the war ends and pressures of recession grow, the  union becomes increasingly insistent that all the black workers join.  Since most of the drama's action takes place on the killing floor of a  slaughterhouse, every confrontation carries with it dramatic tension and  the implicit threat of violence: The violence finally comes--not in the  yards, but in Chicago race riot 1919. In its wake, thousands of blacks  cross picket lines to work in the yards, effectively defeating the union  movement for then.

The production  stars Damien Leake as young black who becomes involved in the organizing  effort, Moses Gunn as a laborer who voices the black attitudes towards  the union, and Clarence Felder as the union shop steward who wants the  organization to include both blacks and whites.

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