Matewan/Norma Rae Essay
Economics in Popular Film
In plot summary, the movies "Norma Rae" and "Matewan" appear to be very similar: laborers working towards a union, with many obstacles put up by management. But, once one takes a closer look at each movie, it becomes apparent that each film takes place in a distinctive, but different, economic condition. "Norma Rae" describes a capitalist society, while "Matewan" describes a feudalistic situation.
In feudalism, one company, or one lord, has a monopoly over all of the necessary resources. This is the case in "Matewan" -- Stone Mountain Coal Company owns all of the land, the housing, even the food. It is also the sole employer in the town of Matewan. In "Norma Rae," Henleyville Mill provides a lot of people in the area with jobs. However, there are other jobs that Norma, or any of her co-workers, could have worked at; there were hotels, restaurants, even a JC Penny's. In fact, Norma's husband did not work at the mill -- he worked at a gas station. The workers in Matewan did not have this choice. If they decided to work some place other than the mine, they could no longer live in town, and they would have been forced to live as mountain men. In other words, the only way to lead a normal existence would be to work for Stone Mountain.
The workers for Stone Mountain were required to sign a contract, much like the contracts in other forms of feudalism. In Matewan, Stone Mountain was the lord whose serfs start out in debt because they had to buy tools from the company store. Also, the contracts stated that the workers would be paid in company scrip, and therefore were forced to buy from the company owned stores and live in company owned houses. This was not a free-market -- for the workers and for the buyers -- because there was no competition, and Stone Mountain had complete control over wages and prices. Competition is essential to a capitalist society. In "Norma Rae," the workers were not paid well, but they had the option of where to spend their money; the Henleyville Mill did not own all of the stores in town.
In a feudalistic society, the people work for themselves, in some sense. They have to give a quota to the "lord," but they then decide how much they work for themselves. This was true in the mines in Mingo County. Unfortunately, the quotas that were given to Stone Mountain were so large that the miners would work themselves into the ground just to make that little extra for themselves. In capitalism, what wages a worker makes, that worker can bring home at the end of the day, and is not indebted to give any of it to their employer. This was the case in "Norma Rae." Even though the wages that the mill workers earned were small, when they got their paycheck, the money was their's to spend on what they wanted, and it was not going to a business controlled by the mill.
Neither the Henleyville Mill nor the Stone Mountain Coal Company supported unions. However, the method each management used to frustrate the attempts of the union organizers were indicative of the economic conditions in which they existed. Stone Mountain denied the workers everything when they went on strike, and brought in detectives to enforce their rules. These detectives were much like feudal knights in that they used the threat of violence to control their workers. The Henleyville Mill used the threat of low wages and even loss of jobs, but their attempts to foil Reuben's efforts were not violent. They hid notices, and use the threat of job loss, but the mill workers would get their union if they voted for it.
Unions are essential to capitalism because they create a competitive market in which the laborer has control over what they are paid. In "Matewan," the workers are not able to get a union. The union organizer, Joe Kinnehan, is killed, as are many other miners who are involved with it. In "Norma Rae," the Henleyville Mill, however complies with the labor laws laid out by the government, because they operate in a capitalistic society where they are ultimately under control of the laws made by the people. In the feudalistic society of Matewan, the people are ultimately under the control of the "lord" -- Stone Mountain Coal Company.
In the end of "Norma Rae," the Henleyville workers get their union because they exist in a capitalist society. However, the workers in "Matewan" do not get a union because they live in a feudalistic society, and unions do not exist in such a society. Although the plots are very much the same, the workers in "Matewan" have a lot further to go before they can achieve even the freedom that the workers in "Norma Rae" had before their union.
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