Income inequality may be a hot topic during the current American election season, but it's also a stark reality that has plagued the country for hundreds of years. That sad history foreshadows what many are still grappling with today. The feature-length documentary Plutocracy II: Solidarity Forever is a studious and well-produced portrayal of America's long-standing clashes between the working-class and the industrial beast.
The film, which is the second part of an ongoing historical series, covers the seminal labor-related events which occurred between the late 1800's and the 1920's. Its subtitle refers to a 1915 song composed by Ralph Chaplin as an anthem for unionized workers. The film itself is the cinematic version of that anthem, as it allows us a comprehensive understanding of the need for these early labor unions, and the enormous sacrifices of its members to ensure fairness, safety, and equality in the workplace.
The operations of industries like railroads, steel and coal were characterized by slave wages, dangerous working environments, punishing hours, and child labor. With the birth of the labor unions, these industries were forced to re-examine their worker policies or run the risk of losing their businesses altogether. One of the earliest examples of this is the formation of the American Railroad Union in 1893, an event that is prominently featured in the film. After the organization won early successes in recovering wages for denigrated workers, its popularity skyrocketed among the working class. But the heads of industry soon fought back with their far-reaching strong-arm influence, and subsequent public strikes were marred by violence, oppression and unlawful arrests.
Modern political junkies will find special relevance in the film's portrayal of Eugene V. Debs, a co-founder of Industrialized Workers of the World, aka the Wobblies, who eschewed divisions based on race, sex, skill level etc. The film devotes an inordinate amount of attention to their actions in the film, including the remarkable free speech fights in California. In this age of Bernie Sanders and his message of democratic socialism, it is surprising to learn that Debs' popularity in the early twentieth century was particularly pronounced in states that lean heavily conservative today.
Also, the director explores the still-controversial "Propaganda of the Deed" campaign, which was essentially a terrorist campaign against moneyed elites by anarchists. He doesn't pass judgement on these actions, but he concludes that their ultimate effect was to increase the power of the police state.
Plutocracy II: Solidarity Forever is essential viewing for those with an interest in America's class struggles, and the ongoing efforts to level the playing field between the haves and the have nots.