Voices of Wisdom: On the Waterfront’s Terry Malloy

“Don’t worry, I’m not gonna hurt nobody. I’m just gonna go down there and get my rights.”

-Marlon Brando as Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront


I love movies. I love good, smart movies. It’s something that’s severely lacking in today’s sequel machine they call Hollywood, so today, I say skip the theater and pick up a good old black-and-white classic, On the Waterfront.

Marlon Brando’s portrayal of a dockworker named Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan’s 1954 masterpiece still holds up today as one of the great performances in all of film. It is a performance that union and non-union workers today should take note of as the embodiment and personification of weathering adversity and standing in solidarity.

Malloy is the quintessential working-class champion.

The story follows Malloy, a young retired boxer in the employ of Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the president of the local longshoremen union, who also happens to be a gangster. After a disturbing turn of events in which Malloy plays his part for Friendly, he begins to grow a conscience. Should he remain a part of the system that takes its cut off the top of the local workers who get a day’s pay only if Friendly allows it? Or should he risk his life trying to make things right for himself and the community that suffers under Friendly’s rule?

In following with the Voices of Wisdom theme, I’m always on the lookout for experienced minds to help mold my impressionable mind about ways to look at the labor movement. My inspiration this time did not come from the eloquence of a particular person — Malloy is quite the contrary – but instead from his primal drive to make things right, for himself and his fellow man. It’s a passion that I, and I’m sure many of my peers, often lack these days. It’s the same passion that we are seeing in the Occupy movement.

Is there a correlation between the dockworkers in the film and union workers today? Probably not. Mob bosses and dashing, roughneck heroes are most often reserved for the silver screen. However, art can and does inspire real-life passion.

It’s unfortunate that many people have come to see unions as greedy machines that are a detriment to the economy; nameless, faceless bureaucracies that don’t deserve compassion. But that is a gross misjudgment. We need to put a face on the cause, a face that the everyday man and woman is much more eager to side with. Terry Malloy is that person. Terry longs for fair working conditions just like today’s union workers.

And who are the Johnny Friendlys? Well, finding a gun-wielding gangster might be a little tough, but unions do have quite a few foes at the moment; the Koch brothers, and governors John Kasich and Scott Walker to name a few. Like Friendly when he cries, “You wanna know who works? The ones I pick to work!” these are people quite willing to wield their pocketbooks and their power to cripple everyday working heroes – the police, firefighters, teachers and nurses – and the sense of community and equality they represent.

On the Waterfront is about taking radical action to uphold an idea that is not so radical: No one should have to live in fear of not having fair and decent working conditions. Unions are here to make sure that employers do the right thing, and that workers get their rights.

-Michael Messina, Managing Editor, LA Labor 411

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