The local union is shown hiring a freelance strike consultant, Ray Rogers, who comes in with charts, graphs and promises of a corporate campaign to draw national press attention. Rogers delivers in the short term, but, it is not enough to defeat opposition from Hormel management and the UFCW international union.
American Dream features footage of union meetings and press releases, Hormel press releases, news broadcasts, and in-depth interviews with people on both sides of the issue, including Jesse Jackson.
In an interview, Kopple explained why she had once again taken on the topic of unions and strikes after her successful award-winning film Harlan County, USA. She said: "In Harlan County, there was such a strong union movement. It seemed that people really cared about workers' struggles and what happened to workers. When I was reading and trying to figure out why plants were closing and why there could be so many wage concessions, it seemed the natural thing to go and explore in the mid-to-late eighties what was happening in America, and how things had changed from the late seventies.
Roger Ebert liked the documentary and its message, and he wrote, "This is the kind of movie you watch with horrified fascination, as families lose their incomes and homes, management plays macho hardball, and rights and wrongs grow hopelessly tangled...The people in this film are so real they make most movie characters look like inhabitants of the funny page.
The Austin Chronicle's film critic Marjorie Baumgarten also appreciated the film, and she wrote, "Kopple's Academy Award-winning documentary American Dream exposes the human cost of Reaganomics...What American Dream wants to learn is: how did this human tragedy happen—at Hormel of all places, a company with a reputation for progressivism? Decades ago it was among the first to furnish its workers with guaranteed annual wages and profit-sharing plans. Generations of family members worked at the plant, taking pride in their products and their relationship to the manufacturing process. The answer the movie presents is Reaganomics, the 'as long as I've got mine, the hell with everyone else' attitude prevalent in the 1980s".