September 27, 2009

Video review: Valley Town- social condition series 4

this is the last installment in our series on social conditions leading to movements for change.

This film premiered at the Steel Workers' Organizing Committee convention in Chicago on May 14, 1940. It discusses factory closure during the Great Depression of the 1930s and the role of new technologies in keeping them from resuming production and their jobs. More importantly, the role of corporate management's decisions to move to non-union low wage areas, or failure to retool the existing plants to new technologies is the next logical question.

The film portrays the stress and low morale that job loss forces upon a family. In one scene, while discussing the wonders of the modern machine age and all the gadgets available to consumers, the unemployed worker sneaks out of the home with an electric toaster to take to a pawn broker. This scene, clearly a point of irony, shows how in a age of so called progress, the rich get richer while the poor get poorer, and is a built in flaw of the capitalist system. A capitalist economic engine overheats and either seizes to a stop, runs out of consumers to fuel it, or shakes itself to pieces.

One sees many metal working machines in the film. One, a turret lathe, is a semi-specialized machine used in mass production of parts. Yet manual turret lathes have been largely replaced by computer controlled, CNC lathes etc. The machinist of old is trained to be a programmer of CNC lathes today, along with making more parts per machinist (higher productivity), and contributing to the layoff of some co-workers. New technologies like desktop publishing software have made typesetting a dead trade, while spreadsheet programs on computers have made the need for comptometer operators obsolete in the office. As a result, retraining is needed. These workers get higher skilled work (research, administration, etc.) or they find work in jobs with lesser pay (retail, fast food, etc.), usually the latter.

This movie was made at the tail end of the depression and before the boom of needed war production and post-war times. What this film had be warning about has slowing became true as far as heavy industry is concerned: the development of the Rust Belt in Eastern Canada, the adjustment of economies to reflect these changes due to globalization, and the resulting human wreckage capitalism has left behind.

The movie stresses the need for education to cope with changing economies as a "national problem". In fact education and retraining is the final message of the film. The replacement of skilled artisans and cottage industries with mass production assembly lines, of cheap semi-skilled workers and the use of job specific training is discredited as short sighted here. The ford system is cheap on human resources for the sake of the profit margin. On a wider scope, the economy of a nation requires educated workers who can easily make job changes into other industrial sectors.

Further, to criticize conventional ideas of "progress" includes the negative effects of boom economies that are rapidly industrializing. Examples this are the social conditions in both the United Kingdom during the Industrial Revolution, and booming industrial economies in countries in the Pacific Rim today. The final question: Is all this waste of resources (global transportation, factory ruins, casual and idle workers) really necessary?

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