Written by: Stewart Lawrence
Organizing textile workers in the South has never been easy. The mills first came into being after textile manufacturers decided to relocate from the American Northeast in the late 1880s. Labor unions were growing more influential in the North, and the textile industry was under pressure to reduce labor costs. These were among America’s first “runaway shops.” Labor costs in the South, where the cotton-producing South, was 40% cheaper, an enticing prospect.
Also, owners could speed up production and introduce piece rates to squeeze workers further. It took until the 1930s for the first major textile strike to erupt (Davis, 2010). The 1934 attack showed that unionization was possible, but progress was slow and sporadic. Organizing gains made in one locale did not necessarily transfer elsewhere.
Norma Rae, starring Sally Fields as the movie’s protagonist, is the story of a textile organizing drive that occurs decades later (Assayev, 1994). It is also the story of one woman’s political coming of age and its impact on her family and community. What becomes clear is that conditions in the South’s textile plants in the late 1970s aren’t much better than they were four decades earlier. However, the workers, impoverished and hyper-exploited, are ripe to be organized.
When a single labor organizer arrives from up North, it inspires Norma Rae to assume the leadership of a plant-wide union organizing drive. With her tireless passion and energy, the workers respond.
Much of the story’s drama is the growing confrontation between Norma Rae, the workers, and the union organizer played by Ron Liebman and the plant owners. They demand that the police and other local officials intervene on the plant’s behalf, which they do. The movie lays bare the disadvantages workers face, partly because of a history of intimidation, but also because plant owners fail to respect the law when it comes to posting legally mandated notices and allowing their workers to rest and take breaks.
Norma Rae becomes radicalized when she sees the effects that the arduous labor has on her family, including her mother’s loss of hearing due to noise in the factory and her elderly father’s stroke and death after he desperately struggles to keep up with a plant-mandated production speedup.
One especially poignant scene occurs when Norma takes her mother to the employer doctor to complain about her mother’s hearing loss. The doctor is dismissive, suggesting the damage is only temporary, and if not, her mother might find another job. Enraged, Rae reminds the doctors that the plant offers the only situation in town, a reminder of the enormous leverage that plant owners have in any labor conflict. If the workers lose their jobs, they lose everything, which helps explain their fear and resignation.
The scene is also an indication that workers lack healthcare access and must rely on corrupt employer doctors for even a semblance of care.
The movie illustrates how vital a local and dynamic plant leader is to a union organizing drive through the evolving personal relationship between Leibman and Fields. While compelling, the organizer is an outsider in the community and may not be trusted unless vouched for by one of their own. Leibman lights the match, but Normal Rae carries the torch inside the plant to energize and inspire her co-workers.
The film’s dramatic emotional climax comes when Norma Rae jumps on top of a table in the plant with a placard emblazoned with UNION. As she moves in a circle so that all the plant’s workers can see her, they turn off their machines until the plant operation comes to a complete stop. At that point, the authorities intervene and escort Norma Rae kicking and screaming to a waiting police car.
Norma Rae was no mere fictional account. The real Norma Rae – Crystal Lee Sutton – was a young textile worker in North Carolina who became caught up in the Textile Workers Union of America’s organizing drive, or TWUA at plants owned by J.P. Stevens throughout the South (Jones, 2009). The campaign had begun in the 1960s and had faced stubborn opposition from management. Sutton had become radicalized after encountering a union campaign poster – not an organizer.
However, Leibman was portraying an actual long-time TWUA union organizer named Eli Zivkovich, who worked carefully with Sutton on a J.P Steven plant’s unionization effort like the one depicted in the movie. Zivkovich later said publicly that in twenty years, “I have never encountered a union organizer with Sutton’s zeal” (Jones, 2009).
If anything, the movie downplays just how difficult it was to get J.P Stevens to recognize a union. In the film, the plant voted by a relatively narrow margin to approve union representation – just as they did historically. However, in reality, Stevens refused to recognize the Union even after workers voted for it. When the movie came out, Stevens was still refusing to acknowledge the Union there and elsewhere. As a result, Sutton ended up going on a nationwide speaking tour using her newfound celebrity as the” real”
Norma Rae to drum up publicity for the union campaign and force J.P Stevens to concede. The Union also organized a boycott of J.P. Stevens products, including pillowcases and sheets, with the slogan “Don’t sleep with J.P. Stevens.” Under growing public and corporate pressure, J.P Stevens eventually caved in.
The movie also fails to do justice to the role of religious groups – or the textile union for that matter — in funding the anti-Stevens publicity campaign, including Sutton’s nationwide tour. In this sense, the movie gives the mistaken impression, perhaps, that fighting for a union comes down to merely making workers aware of their rights and organizing them to push for a union election. It has never been that easy in the South or many other locales.
The plant managers and their allies in the local community have a distinct advantage. J.P. Stevens conceded after a 20-year struggle because textile workers mobilized their powerful external partners – and the national media — that could counter-balance and ultimately outweigh those of the plant owners and their allies.
Finally, the movie also fails to pay sufficient attention to the impact of Race on union organizing in the South. For decades few textile workers were African-American, and racism long hampered the efforts of textile unions to build grassroots multi-ethnic unity among plant workers (Hodges, 1994; Minchin, 2005). In the movie, several prominent African-American workers in the plant who the film portrays sympathetically. In Norma Rae’s strong stand-off with the plant, they are among the last to shut their machines down – a subtle indicator, perhaps, of their heightened sense of fear due to their Race.
In the end, J.P. Stevens concedes to the Union, but it was a mixed blessing for the workers. Many other companies went to school on the tactics the company used to stall recognition of the Union and were able to set back organizing efforts elsewhere. Also, a new breed of managers at the plants began to recognize the need for a new approach. It started instituting changes to wages and working conditions to forestall the need for union recognition.
The J.P. Stevens campaign also drained the Union of financial resources and energy that might have gone to improve organizing efforts beyond the 12 plants Stevens ultimately recognized as Union (McInnis, 1982). The textile union that won at J.P. Stevens – which morphed into the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) — never gained as substantial a foothold among the South’s 600,000 textile workers as it might have.
Even more telling, perhaps, the textile industry in the South did not survive. Foreign competition and the effects of the recurring recession took their toll (Minchin, 2013). Just as the industry once left the North in search of cheap labor in the Carolinas and elsewhere, in the 1990s, companies began off-shoring to Mexico, China, India, and other countries with pools of cheap labor.
Another critical factor was a change in the production process, especially the rise of automation (Kavilanz, 2016). Even when some textile plants did begin returning to the U.S., as they have in recent years, the shop floor looked completely different from the heady days of Norma Rae (Clifford, 2013). Employers, it seems, have found another way to deal with the hazards of rebellious textile workers: Dispense with their human labor altogether.
Assayev, T. (Producer), & Ritt, M. (Director). (1994). Norma Rae [Motion Picture]. United States: Miramax.
Clifford, S. (2013, September 19). U.S. textile plants return, with floors mostly empty of people. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com.
Davis, B.J. (2010). Walking out: The excellent textile strike of 1934. Tar Heel Historian.
Retrieved from http://www.ncpedia.org/textiles/strike-1934.
Hodges, J.A. (1994). J.P. Stevens and the Union: Struggle for the South” in Race, class, and community in Southern labor history, eds. G.M. Fink and M.E. Reed. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Jones, M. (2009, December 23). Crystal Lee Sutton: The organizer. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com.
Kavilanz, P. (2016, October 11). This robot makes a T-shirt from start to finish. CNN Tech. Retrieved from http://www.money.cnn.com.
McInnis, D. (1982, May 30). A new chill on organizing efforts at Southern textile mills. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com.
Minchin, T.J. (2013). Empty mills: The fight against imports and the decline of the U.S. textile industry. Lanham, MD: Rowman, and Littlefield.
Minchin, T.J. (2005). Don’t sleep with Stevens!: The J. P. Stevens Campaign and the struggle to organize the South, 1963-1980. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.