October 17, 2016
By Silver Krieger
New York, NY – The Workers Unite! Film Festival has as its mission to Educate, Illuminate, and Motivate workers around the world. Now in its sixth year, it continues to expand both its size and its reach, in a celebration of Global Labor Solidarity.
LaborPress sat down with its founder, Executive Director Andrew Tilson, and one of its partners, Catta Chou, a founder of the Taiwan International Labor Film Festival, to learn more about its history, current initiatives, and the commonalities of workers across the globe.
“I came from the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, which is now part of CUNY’s School of Professional Studies,” says Tilson. As stated on its website, “The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies offers higher education programs for working adults and union members, and serves as a resource center to labor, academic, and community leaders seeking a deeper understanding of labor and urban issues.” He had worked in the labor and health care fields, and also studied documentary filmmaking, working on a film on the Taxi Workers Alliance. All this experience came together, and, as he says, he “realized there was no labor film festival in New York.” His healthcare contacts helped him find financing to put on such a festival, initially for just a weekend in 2011, and then in 2012 expanding to a week, with showings at the Cinema Village in Manhattan. Now, it’s four weeks long, and last year, featured eighty films and fifty accompanying programs, including music and multimedia. Screenings are held in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. The expansion is crucial to its goal, to, in Tilson’s words, “Get people involved in current labor campaigns, and to pay attention and organize.” He wants the act of sitting and looking at a screen to be just the beginning.
Global expansion began about four years ago, says Tilson, when Chris Garlock, the Director of the DC Labor Film Festival decided to bring together worker and labor film festivals all over the world, and “now we meet at the headquarters of the AFL-CIO as the Global Labor Film Festival Conference. It allows us to get together with colleagues around the world who do this.” That’s also how he met Catta Chou, who, as well as her involvement with the Taiwan International Labor Film Festival, is also the President of Youth Labor Union 95, an activist group (not a union), based in Taipei, Taiwan. She has proved to be the link in providing a way for Chinese workers in America to view American films, by providing subtitles she herself translated. Says Tilson, “An intern at the Murphy Institute put me in touch with groups in Chinatown that work with low wage workers. We had in the past screened films from China that were about labor. The leader of a Chinese labor group requested films about American stories about struggles and union workers, but they’d need to be subtitled in Mandarin. Then I remembered Catta!”
Working with Chou, they were able to successfully subtitle and screen a number of films about organizers, unions, and workers, including one titled, “The Hand That Feeds” about the organizing of workers in a pizza shop on the Upper East Side, and “Schoolidarity” about a teacher’s union. Tilson says this “opened up a lot of borders and exchanges.” In the past, he says, “we had screened films about labor from China,” but this was the first time the American films could be seen by workers who needed subtitles.
The 2017 Festival will be held from May 5th through May 25th. For further information, see their website, at www.workersunitefilmfestival.org.