Glenn Silber, Producer/Director
I never really started out to make a documentary about SEIU’s role in the 2008 Presidential campaign, but as a filmmaker and producer I’m always looking for a big or inspiring story. I found both in what became Labor Day, a feature documentary that chronicles 18 months in the life of a major labor union, and their members’ role in Barack Obama’s historic win.
After George W. Bush’s disastrous administration, the country seemed like it was teetering on the brink: Iraq and Afghanistan, the fallout from Katrina, the housing bubble, Wall Street excess, and the massively expensive financial meltdown that followed. As the 2008 Presidential campaign began, millions of Americans, myself included, were desperate for change.
At the same time, I was ready for a career change. For the previous twenty years, I’d been happily producing for a string of primetime TV newsmagazines at CBS and ABC News, the last ten with 20/20. Wanting to somehow be part of the “change” I wanted to see, I decided to take a break from broadcast journalism and set up my own shop again.
My partner and wife Claudia Vianello and I decided to restart our company, Catalyst Media Productions, the same banner under which I’d produced a number of award-winning independent feature documentaries earlier in my career, including An American Ism: Joe McCarthy, The War At Home, El Salvador: Another Vietnam, and Troupers. These films were witness to dramatic, political conflict in our nation’s history, and as the 2008 campaign approached, I felt America was heading into another such historic moment.
By early 2007, the Presidential Campaign was already looming large on the political landscape and the stakes for the Labor Movement could not have been higher. As the nation’s second-largest union with more than two million members, SEIU (the Service Employees International Union) was determined not to let this election be a repeat of the bitter defeats of 2000 and 2004.
This election was a chance for regular working people – SEIU members - to make a difference in their own lives by fighting for what was important to them: healthcare reform, the economy, and workers rights. For too long the issues and concerns of working people had been invisible to government and to the media. I knew from my years at the networks that labor was a story they generally ignored.
Our company, Catalyst Media Productions, produced a number of short videos for the union, including a ten-minute video about the SEIU’s history with Obama in Illinois. After he won the Democratic Nomination, I began to sense the possibility of doing something bigger.
SEIU was about to launch the biggest ground operation ever by a single organization in a presidential campaign. By early summer, thousands of union members were recruited and were leaving their jobs and families to spend months working in key swing states — battlegrounds that would likely determine the outcome of the election.
I was convinced there was a big story unfolding here that went beyond the union—a remarkable story others would want to see after all the votes were counted. The risk? If Obama lost, no one would want to watch it.
That summer, we covered the events from the Democratic National Convention to SEIU’s “Take Back Labor Day” concert in St. Paul outside the Republican Convention.
Shooting SEIU’s Get Out The Vote action in the last month of the campaign was all pretty much done on the fly.
We never had the time to “cast” which members would be featured at any given location. Our video crew would just show up in a swing state, catch up with SEIU’s ground game and simply do our best to keep up with it. We had crews covering the action in eight swing states to document the union’s final push to help seal Obama’s victory. One member political organizer, Loretta Reddy, a nursing assistant from Florida, undoubtedly spoke for many calling the 2008 campaign “a life-changing experience for us”.
The resulting film, Labor Day, chronicles how one labor union, thousands of activists and sheer determination helped elect the candidate they believed could make the changes most important to them.
As we approach the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s historic election, I see Labor Day as an inspiring story that shows how regular working people, when mobilized and empowered, played a key role in helping to elect Obama President. A year later, they’re still hoping and waiting to see the “change” they believe in come true. It’s time.