I. Summary of Facts
Norma Rae Webster is a minimum-wage employee working in a cotton mill. She’s a widow and a single mom of two children. She lives with her parents. She met New York union organizer Reuben Warshowsky and was won over by his speech. Norma Rae decides to create a labor union in her shop to address employees’ concerns particularly the working conditions in the company.
Her move is met with resentment. Her family is almost wrecked because her second husband got jealous of her growing closeness with Reuben. The management also pressured Norma Rae to abandon her cause to unionize the factory. Reuben tries to win the workers’ support of the union, but is forced to leave out of the town.
But Norma Rae did not succumb to the impediments. Instead, she rises above them all. She fought back. Days later, Norma Rae protests her eviction from the plant. She jumps on a table holding out a sign with the word UNION scrawled in big letters on it. She turns round and round until her fellow workers, in a dramatic show of support to Norma, shut down the deafening machines—leaving the room strangely silent.
The story touches on a number of delicate issues. These issues include the following:
- Did the management abused the employees by making them work under deplorable working conditions?
- How did the workers respond to Norma Rae’s efforts to establish a union within the factory?
- What transformation took place in the process?
1. As to the question whether employee abuse did take place in the story, the answer is yes. Norma Rae got embroiled in a bitter fight against the hardnosed company management who turned a blind eye to the plight and legitimate complaints of their workers. The complaints are numerous. One is the deafening high levels of noise which the employees are constantly exposed to. At the start of the story we can find Norma screaming at her boss complaining that her mother becomes deaf due to the noise in the mill. Another cause of complaint is the cotton fibers at the mill. The small fibers dispersed during operation unfortunately caused exposed the workers to lung illnesses to which they had no protection against. And, more importantly, the insufficient wages the employees receive in return for their hard and sometimes labor which could even lead to the death of some of the mill’s employees. These are some of the employment issues that Norma Rae wants to come to light and she fights for. Socially relevant issues are at the core of this film. Issues which are found in the book The Labor Relations Process, 9th Edition such as collective bargaining issues which include healthcare costs containment, pensions, labor productivity and alternative work arrangements are either implicitly or explicitly tackled in the film.
2. The company’s employees were at first hesitant to join in Norma’s fight for her cause. Probably because of the method the union was organized. Grass roots campaigning is important part of the organizing process but it is not greatly stressed in the story. As a matter of fact, the workers do not seem to have much choice of the matter as the union leader Reuben naturally assume that they need a union without holding a dialogue with the workers or , at least, letting them know what is going on. In unions, electing labor leaders are integral part of the process. This process is also not apparent in the film as Reuben appointed Norma Rae for the leadership post without holding an election.
The Wagner Act which was instituted in 1935 in response to the Great Depression forbids agricultural workers to form unions. This is the reason why Norma Rae was fired by the company for organizing workers.
When the employees voted for the union almost half voted against this because the management organized campaigns to make the workers dislike the unions and become more warm in the way they relate to their employees.
3.During Norma Rae’s time, women were limited to the confines of the home – doing chores, looking after children and being wife to her husband and other performing socially accepted roles. Women are often seen but not heard during Norma’s times. But Norma changed all that. More than depicting social realism, the film actually delves on another delicate issue – female empowerment. It is about the heroine realizing her true capabilities and living up to expectations – her own.
Norma Rae led a flawed existence largely characterized by abuse from men but the strike enables her to blossom into a courageous, determined, independent and dignified woman. The real triumph actually is achieve in and by Norma Rae’s transformation.
The scene in which Reuben interact with the factory workers reflected more than anything else the fact that if we can only help people who wants to be helped or who help themselves.
This view is in consonance with the theme of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. On page of the said book 65 Freire states that “attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects which must be saved from a burning building.” The Selected Works of Mao-Tse-Tung, Vol. III p. 94 resonates similar sentiments. It states that “All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned…. There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the masses rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the masses, who must make up their own minds instead of our making their minds for them.”
The factory workers needed change in their working conditions, in their pay scheme, in their health benefits, in almost everything. But the irony is that the sentiments of the leaders such as Reuben are not shared by the very same factory workers they strive to defend.
As a matter of fact when the factory workers were asked to vote, they were not in favor of the union and therefore, unwilling to introduce changes to their deplorable working conditions.
Probably the problem is not exactly with the factory workers but with the way Reuben relates to them. He doesn’t consulted the factory workers for their opinions. He also does not allow the workers to arrive at the decision by themselves instead he is spoon feeding them with information expecting that they will simply go along with the plan. This is probably because the leaders such as Reuben are more concerned with defending the cause rather than defending the people. Liberating the oppressed after all cannot progress without the support and the consent of the oppressed themselves. Otherwise, it would just be another vain attempt to effect change.
Norma Rae. Dir. Martin Ritt. Perfs. Sally Field, Beau Bridges, Robert Broyles, John Calvin,
Booth Colman. 20th Century Fox, 1979.
Holley, William; Jennings, Kenneth and Wolters, Roger. The Labor Relations Process, 9th
Edition . South Western College Publishing, 2008.
Quart, Leonard and Kornblum, William. “Documenting Workers.” Dissent Magazine.
Accessed 20 May 2009 <http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/?article=914>