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Matewan/Norma Rae Essay

Posted by Andrea Mank on October 15, 2000 at 08:38:14:

Matewan and Norma Rae
Andrea Mank

Theoretically, the characters of both Matewan, and Norma Rae take part in a capitalistic society. In both situations the people are partaking in a form of labor market, where they are selling their time and energy. However, the town of Matewan, governed by the Stone Mountain Coal Companies' monopoly on the land and businesses, and isolated by distance and limited technology, as fallen into a feudalistic condition. Despite the fact that Norma Rae's small hometown of Alabama bears a great resemblance to the town of Matewan, their economic situation remains a form of capitalism. Though the Henely Mill is a dominating force in the small town, with a strong financial hold over the citizens, it is not as dictatorial of the society as the Stone Mountain Coal Company is over Matewan.
In signing the Stone Mountain Coal Company's contract the coal miners did not simply agree to sell the company their time and labor; they signed away their lives. In a capitalistic society one goes to work in an industry of their choosing, is compensated with a fair wage. In such a society the business one works for has no authority over where their workers eat, sleep, or spend their leisure hours. However, the town of Matewan is trapped under the hegemonic power of the coal company. The coal company has a monopoly over the predominant natural resources in the area. Their ownership is not only limited to the coalmines, but to the general store, and the much of the town's housing. Within the bonding contract of the mine workers are forbidden to buy their supplies from anywhere other than the general store, and are forced to reside in the coal company's housing. The coal company enforces this by paying their workers in company script, which can only be redeemed at the company owned businesses. The coal company therefore has ultimate control over the inflation of the market; they are able to play both sides of the board by escalating the prices of goods and housing, while lowering the labor income, ultimately reaping a higher profit at the drastic expense of the workers.
When new miners arrive in the town of Matewan, they are automatically in debt to the company store for the equipment need to begin working. Throughout the life of the coal miners they are at the mercy of the company's scams and whims. Coal mining is a dangerous operation; not only by chance of mishap, but the coal miners are in great risk of ill health due to the inhalation of coal dust, and the physical strain of working such a laborious trade. The coal company is insensible to the health concerns of the miners; individuals are irrelevant to the industrial company, and they are secure on the knowledge that a fresh supply of young, healthy, able-bodied workers will fall into their grasp.
The Stone Mountain Coal Company's monopoly over the resources of Matewan is compounded by the town's isolation. Matewan, nestled west of the Shenandoah Valley in West Virginia, is not readily accessible to the outside world; nor is the rest of the world accessible to the citizens of Matewan. The town is separated not only by physical distance, but also by a lack of technology. In 1920 travel was still time-consuming, and the people of Matewan are unable to easily communicate with the rest of the world. The inability to commute, and socialize with neighboring towns promotes ignorance, which aids in locking the town in a feudal society.
The Alabama town of Norma Rae shares many of Matewan's feudalistic characteristics, yet remains a capitalistic society. The Henely Mill is the predominant employment option for the mass of people with little or no skills. Many people of Norma Rae's town are trapped by ignorance, and lack of ambition. However, the majority of the Henely Mill's procedures fall under the category of capitalism. The Mill's influence is limited to a strong financial hold over the small town; other employment opportunities exist outside of the Mill. In contrast to the town of Matewan, the workers partake in a type of free labor market where they are paid for the hours of work they put forth. This is perhaps the most essential difference between the two economic situations. Where the coal miners were paid with company script, the mill workers are paid in U.S. funds.
Another fundamental difference between the two situations is the degree of control held over the workers during the time they are not carrying out their work duties. In signing a contract, workers of Matewan were not only forced to reside in company housing and buy for the company store, but were also forbidden to launch a union. Norma Rae, and her fellow workers, were not under a binding contract to the Henely Mill; and were tied to the organization only when working on the grounds. Due to their contractual agreement, or lack thereof, the Henely Mill workers held the legal rights to form a union, where the coal miners were banned from us and undertaking.
A union formation was possible in Norma Rae's town due to one essential element: the legal rights, and government support. This was made possible by the time frame, and the geographical location of the small Alabama town. Rupert's odyssey to begin a union was fully supported by the U.S. government; he held the rights to inspect the mill, put up notices, and converse with the workers on their off hours and breaks.




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