Every night of the week, a legion of people enter the skyscrapers of American cities and clean the offices of large companies. They remain "invisible" people, nameless and faceless to most of us, these service workers on the bottom of the economic ladder. In a world of money, politics, and power, they are not even factored into the game.
Ken Loach, whose politically engaging films include My Name Is Joe, Carla's Song, and Land and Freedom, has crafted a riveting drama about some Latino janitors and cleaners in Los Angeles. Open your heart to this film, and you will encounter what it is like for some oppressed individuals to express their righteous indignation and to seek a just recompense for their labors. As you sense the director's moral outrage over their working conditions, let your own emotions bring you to a point of empathy. As Robert Solomon once wrote: "Justice is not an ideal state or theory but a matter of personal sensibility, a set of emotions that engage us with the world and make us care."
Maya (Pillar Padilla) leaves Mexico and slips across the border to the United States in search of a better life. In Los Angeles, she moves in with her older sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) and her husband Bert (Jack McGee). First she gets a job at a bar. When she is sexually harassed there, this fiery young woman seeks employment at Angel Cleaning Company where her sister works. Perez (George Lopez), her boss, takes a "commission" of her first month's salary as payment for his kindness in giving her a job cleaning offices.
Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody), a colorful union organizer and activist who enjoys shaking up corporate America, wants the workers in Maya's building to join a union. She is immediately attracted to his passion for the cause. He points out that years ago janitors were earning $8.50 an hour with health insurance whereas now they take home $5.75 an hour and have no health insurance, sick days, overtime, or holiday pay.
Although many of Maya's co-workers are frightened of losing their jobs and being deported, she is motivated to work for change when Perez fires an elderly woman for being late. She wants Reuben (Alonso Chavez), an earnest young man she's dating, to join her but he has won a scholarship to law school and needs the money from his job to cinch this opportunity.
Maya grows closer to Sam. She is especially impressed when he disrupts the building manager's lunch at a fancy restaurant and organizes the workers to crash a party in the building celebrating the merger between Hollywood lawyers and another firm. Both of these actions are designed to embarrass the cleaning company by spotlighting the janitors' right to better wages and health benefits.
Based on a real-life Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles in 1990, Bread and Roses vividly demonstrates the horrible inequities between those who work in the city's offices and those who clean them. It is exciting to watch Maya's empowerment through political action. Some of the fire of her transformation is squelched by a scary encounter with her sister during which she angrily reveals what she was forced to do to provide for Maya and the rest of their family in Mexico. Ken Loach refuses to give us a fairy tale ending where everything is nicely wrapped together in a victory for the downtrodden.
Watching this film, we were reminded of a piece of advice given by Dom Helder Camara, a Latin American liberation theologian: "We must carry a reverence for justice as a mother carries a reverence to her unborn child." Ken Loach has done that. His passion for social justice shines through the experiences of these Latino characters and ignites our hearts.