THE MAKING OF UNION TIME

From Matthew Barr, director/producer

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In decades of producing documentaries about working people and working communities, I always wanted to make a film about a union. In 2007, a contact at the local Teamsters Union pointed me in the direction of the Smithfield Foods’ pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

As a one-man band, between 2007 and 2015, I shot footage of demonstrations, debriefing meetings, and home visits. I filmed organizers as they encouraged workers at midnight in the Smithfield parking lot, keeping an eye out for the company’s notorious private police force as they talked. I teased out evidence from thousands of pages of National Labor Relations Board documents. Most importantly, I interviewed workers who put aside fear to fight for a cause that could cost them their jobs, their immigration status, and their freedom.

The incredible courage of the Smithfield workers—Wanda Blue, Ronnie Simmons, Lidia Victoria, Keith Ludlum, Terry Slaughter, Henry Thomas, Julia MacMillan, Lorena Ramos, and so many others—carried me through the highs and lows of making the film. They are the heroes of Union Time.

Like so many documentaries this was a labor of love, a deep immersion into a culture and a cause. I shot more than 170 hours of footage for the film. My wife Cornelia and I wrestled with a complex story arc spanning 16 years and many players. Our goal was to tell the story as a major achievement of the labor movement but also use it to inspire other struggles for justice, from Moral Monday to the fight to raise the minimum wage.

To produce the film, the Unheard Voices Project received support from the Forsyth County (NC) Arts Council, the United Church of Christ Neighbors in Need program, and a number of progressive individuals, including my generous family. I was also fortunate in my capacity as a Media Studies professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG) to receive grants and a research leave.