This week, Showtime’s American Rust dramatized the conflict between a local small businessman and his employees in an economically desperate Rust Belt Pennsylvania town.
Based on the novel of the same name, American Rust is the latest show since HBO’s highly-acclaimed Mare of Eastown to delve into the lives of blue-collar and working poor Americans in the forgotten Rust Belt.
In this week’s episode, “Jojo Ameri-GO,” on Sunday, October 10, struggling seamstress Grace (Maura Tierney) presents her boss Gelsey (Gordon Clapp) with union authorization cards. When most Hollywood scripts dramatize unionizing employees, they treat management as a cartoonish villain. But American Rust tends to approach its characters with sympathy and the episode allows Gelsey to give valid points in his defense.
Stephanie: I’m a representative from the NLRB. You’re about to be handed union authorization cards from 51% of your employees.
Gelsey: Gracie, who is this?
Grace: She just told you who she is.
Gelsey: Don’t try to give those to me. I’m not taking them.
Stephanie: Whether you take them or not, they indicate that 51% of your employees would like to be represented by a union.
Gelsey: Fifty-one percent? I don’t believe that.
Grace: It’s what the cards say.
Stephanie: At this point, you have two options: You can either voluntarily recognize the union as a bargaining representative for its employees…
Gelsey: Voluntarily? What? Bethany, what’s going on here? You used to come to me if you needed something. What happened?
Stephanie: Or you can refuse to recognize the card check majority, which will result in a secret-ballot election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.
Gelsey: I am a good man, a good boss. I let you have time off when-when your kids are sick. I give Christmas bonuses. Do you think these women can afford union fees? These families are barely getting by. They can’t even keep the heat on in winter.
Grace: And whose fault is that?
Gelsey: You are gonna be the reason that all these women lose their jobs. You understand that?
Grace: And you are responsible for these women not having any health insurance, and no benefits, and no paid leave.
Gelsey: I hope you feel good about what you’re about to do.
Grace: There’s a system in place. Companies do this all the time.
Gelsey: I am not like other companies. It’s only me here. Just me. You listed two options, but you forget I have two more: Move or shut down. Get out of my office.
Gelsey is right, of course. He and his employees live in an area that has been in economic decline for decades. Although it is unspoken, Gelsey himself likely has to compete with cheap clothing made in China as a result of trade policies that have gutted the American Rust Belt for years. Gelsey can move in order to keep his business afloat or he can throw in the towel and shut-down in tough economic times. But his workers would lose everything if he retired or left for greener geographic pastures.
Later in the episode somebody graffiti’s and damages Grace’s car. She wonders if it was Gelsey, but the culprit is unknown. It remains to be seen how the series will portray her boss in the future. American Rust’s determination to accurately portray its local characters and their circumstances so far makes it a hard show to pin down politically. It at least deserves credit in this episode for not turning an argument over unionization into a one-sided caricature like Hollywood shows usually do.
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