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Norma Rae Is Still a Classic

Four decades later, the 1979 pro-labor movie Norma Rae still holds up.

The iconic still from Norma Rae.

On the list of great US labor films, Norma Rae is certainly near the top. I saw it more than twenty years ago, before I knew much about unions. After working in the labor movement for many years, I wanted to watch it again to see how well it dealt with unions and the organizing process.

The 1979 film, starring Sally Field, for which she won the Oscar for Best Actress, is based on a real seventeen-year campaign to organize the J. P. Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. The main character, Norma Rae Wilson, is based on a real mill worker, Crystal Lee Sutton, who had experiences similar to the ones depicted in the film.

For most of that time, the union involved was the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA), the union shown in the film. In 1976, TWUA merged with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, so that the union that negotiated the contract at Stevens was the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU). In 2000 I went to work for the union UNITE, which was the product of the 1995 merger of ACTWU and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. We saw Norma Rae and the campaign it was based on as an important part of the union’s legacy.

It definitely feels like a 1970s film, the kind where you say, “Wow, Hollywood would not make something like this again today”: a pro-union film entirely about an organizing campaign in great detail. Indeed, soon after its release, with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, it seems the door mostly closed on explicitly leftist feature films for many years. The list of pro-union films ever since is far too short.

Organizing in Norma Rae

How does the film understand unions, and how well does it show the union organizing process? At first, fairly traditionally. It follows the familiar trope of a male union organizer arriving in town, in this case to organize the workers at the O. P. Henley textile mill, the major employer in Henleyville. The organizer is Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman), who is Jewish and from New York, which sets up an inevitable “fish out of water” framework in that small southern town. Later in the film, Norma Rae literally calls him that when they go swimming in a river.

Reuben is smart, tough, and hard-working, but his macho organizing style may cause some of today’s organizers to laugh or cry. The way he talks about organizing is telling. He says he told the local cop he was there “to put a union in the O. P. Henley textile mill.”

He starts the campaign by handing out flyers at the plant gate, which was enough to make me cringe. Way too soon dude! This alerted the boss and exposed workers to risk right away, before there was any chance to help them build confidence and trust in the campaign. We would ideally want to see individual worker organizing and the formation of a strong rank-and-file committee before “going public” with the campaign.

Another blunder occurs later on when he is escorted through the plant to confirm that the union postings are visible. He asks a worker, in front of management, if he likes his job. This is not how you build a good relationship with workers.

His longer conversations with workers are not great either, featuring mainly lectures about how they are getting screwed and need the union, rather than starting with letting workers talk about their issues at work. A conversation between Reuben and Norma Rae’s father is fairly typical:

Reuben: How much do you make an hour?

Father: I make $1.33 a frame.

Reuben: And when did you have your last cost-of-living raise?

Father: I haven’t had that.

Reuben: With all due respect Mr. Witchard, with today’s inflation that makes you a bit of a schlemiel.

Father: You calling me some kind of a name?

Reuben: You’re underpaid. You’re overworked. They’re shafting you right up to your tonsils. You need me, sir.

But Reuben does have some good moments. When the campaign gets going and Norma Rae holds a union meeting in her house, Reuben shows his ability to listen by asking folks to just talk about whatever they want. At first there is silence, but he doesn’t fill it, and eventually the work stories come out. One worker says that he used to work near a window with a view until the company bricked it up. Another talks about how her husband recently died of Brown Lung, the historical scourge of textile workers.

The main thread in the film is the growing relationship between Reuben and Norma Rae, as she becomes drawn into the campaign as the lead rank-and-file organizer. Norma Rae is considered a feisty trouble-maker with a messy personal life (single mother, affair with a married man, etc.) in that small town. Management tries to tame her by giving her a promotion to a supervisory role. That job alienates her from her coworkers, and she eventually quits to go back to the weaving room.

When she joins the union campaign, I was stunned when she asks Reuben if she might lose her job and he says:

No way. You can wear a union button as big as a Frisbee when you go to work. You can talk union to any mill hands that want to listen as long as it’s during a break. You can take union pamphlets to the mill and pass them along. There’s not a goddamn thing they can do to touch you.

Any organizer knows, or should know, that workers could be fired for organizing and the boss might get away with it. No doubt he didn’t want to alarm her, but this overly confident answer was misleading, and it would be much better to talk through honestly what might happen. In fact, Norma Rae is fired later on, but she doesn’t remind him of what he said.

A tragedy that seems to draw her more deeply into the union campaign is when her father dies of an apparent heart attack in the plant after the boss refuses to let him rest when his arm is feeling numb. As the campaign heats up and she puts in long hours of organizing, she comes to realize that collective action is essential, saying to Reuben, “You know cotton mill workers are known as trash to some. I know the union’s the only way we’re gonna get our own voice and make ourselves any better. I guess that’s why I push.”

Her growing radicalization is revealed during a talk with her kids toward the end, when she wants them to understand why she was fired and arrested: “If you go in the mill, I want life to be better for you than it is for me. That’s why I joined up with the union, and that’s why I got fired for it. You understand me? Now you kids, you know what I am. And you know that I believe in standing up for what I think is right.”

The film does a good job of touching on the things that would happen when organizing a union in a conservative, small town. The local minister refuses to let Norma Rae use his church for an interracial union meeting. The local cop harasses Reuben when he arrives in town. Norma Rae’s father has anticommunist views. Her husband, Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), becomes alarmed at Norma Rae’s intense union activity, causing tensions in their marriage.

And the boss’s anti-union campaign is shown pretty well, though it’s perhaps fairly tame by southern textile mill standards. Management commits numerous unfair labor practices, such as surveilling workers as they take union flyers, making union postings harder to see on the company bulletin boards, speeding up the work in retaliation, and harassing and eventually firing Norma Rae. Their dirtiest deed is posting an anti-union letter that inflames racial tensions in the plant.

An interesting scene about gender politics involves two of Reuben’s union colleagues dropping by his hotel room when he and Norma Rae are working. They advise him to kick Norma Rae off the campaign because there are too many rumors about her lack of morals in that conservative town. Reuben rightly defends her and throws them out.

This highlights the double standard facing Norma Rae, since no male worker with similar behavior would have been treated that way. And Reuben’s defense underlines that her essential contribution to the union campaign is more important than any issues of decorum or rumors about her personal life.

Holding the Union Sign

The drama reaches a climax toward the end with its most famous scene, possibly the most iconic of all US labor films. When Norma Rae tries to write down the text of that racist letter at work, she is called into the management office and fired. She refuses to leave and writes “UNION” on a piece of cardboard and stands on a table in the weaving room, holding it up. Surrounded by her coworkers, she looks at them one by one as they shut down their machines. Eventually the room becomes totally quiet.

This depiction of a direct action work stoppage is really great, and was based on the real experiences of Crystal Lee Sutton. There may be a danger that this romanticizes the importance of the “grand individual gesture” in organizing over collectively decided strategy and tactics, but I think it’s a strong scene showing worker solidarity.

Another scene that I loved is at the very end where they are dramatically counting the NLRB union election ballots. No really, hear me out. They set it up very well. Hundreds of workers are packed into a hot, totally quiet mill watching the ballot-counting. Norma Rae and Reuben are outside listening, and eventually they announce a narrow union victory as the workers chant “Union” and march out. I think this is the best “watching them count the union election ballots and announce a victory” scene of any labor film.

The film’s odd decision at the end is that Reuben drives back to New York right after the vote tally and an emotional goodbye to Norma Rae outside the plant. While it’s true that organizers will often leave after the vote and different union staffers will come in for the contract negotiations, what’s the hurry? There’s no doubt going to be a huge party that night, and the film misses a great opportunity to show the union celebration and sense of solidarity. The story unfortunately just ends when Reuben leaves town.

Furthermore, the film doesn’t indicate the troubles that lie ahead trying to get a decent union contract in a plant with a divided workforce. Indeed, at the real J. P. Stevens plant, it took several more years of fighting, including a pioneering corporate campaign, to get a contract.

So the main positives for me are the explicit pro-union message and decent, if somewhat flawed, depiction of the organizing campaign and management’s union-busting. Norma Rae’s strong female lead is critical, though the film doesn’t seem to pass the Bechdel test since her interactions are almost exclusively with men.

The growing class consciousness of Norma Rae is covered nicely. Moreover, the depiction of black and white workers organizing together is great, though the film really should have had a well-developed black character. Toward the end we see a group of workers doing campaign tasks on the organizing committee, making it clear that it wasn’t just Reuben and Norma Rae that mattered. There are plenty of fantastic scenes inside an actual textile mill, the Opelika Manufacturing Corp. in Opelika, Alabama. Also I really like the movie’s emotional country theme song “It Goes Like It Goes.” Sorry, not sorry.

The main weakness from a union standpoint is Reuben’s flawed organizing style, featuring mostly just telling workers they need a union. He is also the one shown doing most of the union activity — handing out flyers, knocking on doors, speaking at the meeting, confronting management, giving campaign assignments, etc. This is the framework of the union organizer as a lone hero coming to fix the workers’ problems, rather than what they should be — the facilitator of building collective power and worker ownership of the campaign.

I analyze NLRB election data as a hobby (really), and in the mid-1970s, unions ran over eight thousand elections per year, but only won about half of them. If Reuben’s organizing strategy was at all typical, we can see why.

Possibly, some may object that Norma Rae’s character was presented as too stereotypically “small town” and a “damsel in distress” in need of strong guidance from the experienced male organizer and authority figure. The film would have perhaps been stronger with more of a challenge toward Reuben’s mansplaining behavior. That said, the relationship of Reuben and Norma Rae really does end up as one of comrades in struggle.

Too Radical for Itself?

History professor Jefferson Cowie, in his essential book about US labor in the 1970s, Stayin’ Alive, discusses the film as very much a product of director Martin Ritt, an old school lefty who also directed The Molly Maguires in 1970. Cowie considers Norma Rae a pro-labor standout among the films of the decade: “Norma Rae was thus a distinct oddity in seventies popular culture: an optimistic message about the capacity of working people and one of the very few unabashedly, pro-labor movies of the decade.”

The thing that probably irritates me the most about the film is one of the movie posters. Instead of a defiant Norma Rae in her work clothes holding the union sign, the obvious choice, it has a smiling, better-dressed Norma Rae just holding her hands in the air. It makes no sense, almost as if they airbrushed out the union sign. Perhaps when it came time to market the film, the studio suits lost their nerve and were afraid to use the fairly radical content that was actually in the film. There is another grittier poster which is better, though.

But in fact, in Stayin’ Alive, Cowie talks about how they mostly used the smiling Norma Rae poster, marketing it, incredibly, as a women’s film telling a story of individual female empowerment. In this framing, Norma Rae is like a female Rocky Balboa, and the class struggle and collective action recede. Watch the movie trailer — it barely mentions that this is about a union campaign. It’s really unbelievable.

Despite the unfortunate way it was sold to the public, the film is really solid as a union story. For union members, labor enthusiasts and political leftists, Norma Rae holds up fairly well after forty years.