I have written before about Labor Day. It’s another American holiday that has lost its original meaning over the years. You can read about the history of the Labor Day holiday elsewhere, but today I’m going to look at one film that changed my thinking about “labor” and labor unions.
Norma Rae is a 1979 American drama film directed by Martin Ritt based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton. It stars Sally Field as the title character, a factory worker in North Carolina who becomes involved in trade union activities at the textile factory where she works. She was not a person with much formal education and no political or organizing interests. But she becomes interested after her and her co-workers’ health is compromised due to poor working conditions.
The scene that I remember best is the one illustrated above where Norma Rae writes “UNION” on a sheet of cardboard and stands on a table until, one by one, her fellow factory workers shut off their machines in solidarity.
It is a climactic scene that feels like a kind of triumph and is inspiring, but it’s important to note that by this point in the movie, Norma Rae has already been fired from her job because of her “unionizing.”
The real-life Norma Rae, Cheryl Lee Sutton, did organize a protest in 1978 and was fired. But the mill was unionized and she went to work as an organizer for the textile union. The mill where she worked closed in 2003 along with hundreds of other similar factories across the Carolinas, as American textile manufacturing moved to countries like China and Mexico.
When I saw the film at its release, I was four years into my first teaching job which had me in three unions – local, state, and national. I eventually worked on negotiations for my local union to try to correct what I thought were inequities and needs. We never went on strike and our “protests” were pretty mild because the vast majority of teachers did not want to do anything that would hurt the kids’ education.
One college summer job I had required me to be in the Teamsters union. That was quite different. I only attended one meeting but it was like what films had shown me about unions – tough guys (mostly men) acting and talking tough.
I had and have mixed feelings about unions. I know the need for them. I saw the opportunities for abuse. I saw how they could help. There were times it was to my advantage to be in a union and times when it was not to my advantage.
I know unions are probably not as powerful as they once were in America. I know that companies are still trying to stop new ones from forming. Amazon is an example of that in the news recently.
The film, Norma Rae, received four nominations at the 52nd Academy Awards including Best Picture. It won two awards – Best Actress (for Sally Field) and Best Original Song for its theme song “It Goes Like It Goes”. The film is considered “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant by the U.S. Library of Congress and was selected to be preserved in the National Film Registry in 2011.