‘Newsies’ Brings Home Labor Issues to Kids

By Stan Karp

The news about Newsies, the Disney musical based on the story of streetwise city kids who battled New York’s newspaper giants with their spirit and solidarity at the turn of the century, is pretty good. It’s an upbeat story that should interest teachers, parents, and kids, and it has potential uses in the classroom. But you’ll probably have to wait for the video to see it, since a weak showing at the box office means it’s already being replaced by the slapstick comedies and saccharine cartoon tales that make up the standard fare of children’s films.

As the opening titles announce, Newsies is based on real events, although the actual history is sketchy. In 1899, during an era of intense labor conflict in New York City, young street peddlers for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World fought efforts to cut their meager earnings by organizing a strike. The strike was effective and apparently successful, but details are hard to come by. The film’s screenwriters told the newsweekly In These Times that they developed the script after reading a one-sentence reference to the episode in a book review of David Warsaw’s Children of the City (Oxford U. Press). Warsaw himself told ITT reviewer Pat Dowell that the film sanitizes events in some respects, and that the strike’s success was “hinted at rather than spelled out in the historical record.” But while Hollywood may have taken its usual dramatic license, the essential outline of the story seems to be accurate.

In the film, this history is woven around the story of Jack Kelly. Jack is an orphaned street tough who hides his loneliness beneath a talent for hustling and selling “papes.” In showing Jack at work early on, the film captures the flavor of the sensational “yellow journalism” of the era (a legacy viewers will recognize as very much alive today in both its print and its electronic versions). When Jack shamelessly hypes routine news items with screaming exaggerations, he insists, “I don’t do nothing the guys who write it don’t do.”

The story takes off when Pulitzer, who is obviously more obsessed with profits than with the standards of journalistic excellence that will later bear his name, decides to improve his balance sheet by raising the price of papers to the newsies. The alternative, his aides pointedly tell him, is to lower executive salaries. They also assure Pulitzer that despite the appearance of cutthroat competition, William Randolph Hearst and the other publishers will go along.

The newsies, however, aren’t so agreeable. They spring into action, led by the charismatic Jack and his more “intellectual” friend Dave (who learned his labor lessons when his father lost his job after injury: “He had no union to protect him.”). Taking their cue from a recent trolly strike, the newsies organize a union, refuse to buy papers at the higher price, and organize aggressively to prevent anyone else from doing so.

Courageous Kids

The film hits its stride as the kids realize what powerful forces they’re up against. They prove courageous in the face of goons and resourceful in spreading the word and gaining support from other bands of working class kids, particularly Spot Conlon and his Brooklyn crew. Their cause attracts a crucial champion in Mr. Denton, a journalist for a rival paper that is happy to print Denton’s heroic accounts of the children’s crusade and build public support, as long as the strike is confined to Pulitzer’s presses. Eventually Denton is muzzled, teaching the newsies some harsh truths about freedom of the press and prompting them to put out a paper of their own with Denton’s help.

Corrupt cops, blackmail, and threats of prison are all marshalled against the young strikers. Jack and Dave begin to realize how much of the city runs on exploited child labor and how desperate employers are to stop them. “They don’t want the strike to spread,” says Jack. But spread it does to a triumphant conclusion that leaves the newsies dancing in the streets and the audience grinning out the aisles.

All in all, Newsies has a lot going for it. When’s the last time you saw a pro-labor story about workers taking on profiteering corporate powers, along with their corrupt agents in government, and winning a round for social justice? How many other recent films treat seriously the capacity of young

people to empower themselves and to act intelligently in the face of injustice? Where else have you seen issues like the role of physical force in labor battles, the necessity of workers building alliances, or the anti-labor biases of the media, raised, even partially, as they are in Newsies?

All of these themes might be the basis of useful discussions and activities for students. Teachers might show their classes Newsies, and then look at how the local paper covers strikes, or have students research the experience of their own family members with unions or strikes. They could chart the extent and conditions of child labor in their communities, perhaps starting with their favorite fast food restaurants.

Teachers might also help students find lessons in this story of labor organizing that could be applied to the environmental activism sweeping many schools. They could investigate what it would take today for kids to put out an independent paper or a leaflet on some issue. Students could discuss how the newsies spread their strike and try to find ways to act on an issue of mutual concern with students in some other school or area.

A Few Cautions

Of course, if you do decide to use Newsiesin the classroom, there are a few cautions you may want to consider (and you won’t find them raised in the rather dull classroom hand-out Disney has sent out to some schools).

The film’s unusually progressive presentation of labor issues doesn’t present it from preventing a stereotypical view of women and families. As my 10-year-old daughter reminded me on the way out, Sarah, the only girl in the film, “doesn’t do much.” She is there (like Teddy Roosevelt) as a background figure for Jack’s inspiration and salvation. Likewise Jack’s on-the-outside-looking-in refrain about home life, “Mother, father, daughter, son, so that’s what they call a family,” doesn’t reflect reality in my school, and probably not yours either. Despite a few early close-ups of the black character, Boots, Newsies also skims over the racial issues that have complicated so many labor struggles.

More subtle, perhaps, is the film’s, “leadermania.” One hardly expects the cardboard conventions of Hollywood musicals, especially one from Disney, to do justice to the complexities of struggles for social change. But Newsies could have done a little better. It slips too easily into patterns of hero/leader-group/follower. “Tell us what to do Jack,” the newsies plead. There’s not much semblance of how social struggles manage to transform isolated individuals into a unified group with some measure of democratic skills, or how leaders develop mutual trust with those they represent. (There’s even a dubious episode when threats and pressure turn Jack into a scab for a couple of days before he bolts and rejoins the strike without any complications for his role as a leader.) Instead, there’s a lot of that familiar Hollywood film conceit — which must be especially maddening to teachers — spontaneous unanimity and cohesive action on the part of hundreds and thousands of individual kids. Oh well, this is the movies.

Still with so much going for it, it’s a shame Newsies didn’t find a larger audience the first time around.(Personally, I’d have opted for a more musically adventurous — and commercially more appealing — mix of rap and rock over the Broadway score and big production numbers.) But whatever its flaws, Newsies deserves a definite thumbs up, or better yet, an outstretched arm, with fist thrust high in the air.