06/30/2014 05:39 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

On the Waterfront 's take on Harris v. Quinn

Monday's Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn is the latest in a series of tumultuous events for labor over the past several years. Facing budget shortfalls, governors on both sides of the aisle -- from Cuomo to Christie, Scott Walker to Massachusetts' own Deval Patrick -- have tangled with public sector unions since 2009. Today, American unions possess a fraction of the influence they once did a few decades ago, with membership rates declining to historic lows.

That labor is no longer enjoying its heyday from the 1950s would be an understatement.

Recently, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Boston screened the classic 1954 drama, On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando in one of his seminal roles. Designed as a response by director Elia Kazan to criticism he received for his HUAC testimony, the film strongly argues against moral absolutism, painting a grim picture of life for its Hoboken longshoremen characters. It remains one of the greatest films ever produced out of Hollywood.

As a reminder, On the Waterfront depicts the internal, and external, battles of Brando's character, Terry Malloy. A former boxer, Malloy has been coopted into a criminal enterprise led by Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), who oversees the local dockworkers. Malloy eventually gains a conscience and takes on Friendly over the soul of the waterfront.

Significantly, the vindictive Friendly is a union boss.

Sitting in Coolidge, I wondered if On the Waterfront offered any commentary on today's labor struggles, and whether its depiction of Johnny Friendly bore any responsibility for the perception, by some, of modern unions as a corrupting influence in American life.

To be sure, On the Waterfront is a parable, with clear heroes and villains. But, if you listen to the talking heads on either MSNBC or Fox News, so is American politics. As union leader, Friendly engineers an unfair system-since he controls access to the jobs on the waterfront, he decides which of his members get to work, essentially exhorting fees from them at will. He arranges murders for workers who dare to cross him with a devilish sense of entitlement and rage. At times, his depiction would not seem out of place in a right winger's boogeyman conception of The Cartoonishly Despicable Big Union Boss.

There's practically an industry of books out there on exactly the Johnny Friendly's of the world, and how they have sold out the American worker. Call him the Jimmy Hoffa before Jimmy Hoffa.

Business is portrayed as a fairly benign force, but more interested in disassociating itself with Friendly once Malloy testifies against him, than actually instituting real reforms. This is a savvy comment, and should be heeded by partisans who have opinions -- either way -- about the intentions of an ultimately self-vested segment of the American economy. (Note: the film ends with the union and business working together.)

Until the film's conclusion, Friendly is not accountable to either his members or law enforcement, leaving his schemes unchecked. It is only when the longshoremen collectively force action that he is overthrown (literally). The implication is that his removal as union boss promises a new era for the workers on the waterfront. In Hollywood endings, without a doubt...

Today, with many examining the Commonwealth's unfunded liabilities, the impetus is on leadership to be grounded in pragmatism and fair play. With a governor's race around the corner here in Mass, voters will have the opportunity to decide for themselves what kind of leadership suits them.

In the case of On the Waterfront, the character Johnny Friendly reveals the dark side of leadership when yielded by bad men. Through cooperation between good leadership, and an engaged body, institutions demonstrate their long-term value, and ensure systemic equilibrium.