In the film Norma Rae, the textile workers were unsatisfied with many aspects of their Capitalistic work environment. They fought to form a union so that they could change the undesirable characteristics to better meet their needs. Political, environmental and cultural processes all played a part in the workers struggle to form an effective union.
Unlike the film, Matewan, in which the coal miners worked under feudal control, the employees of the O.P. Henley Mill worked amidst a Capitalistic Economy. The key difference between the two, is that the inhabitants of the town of Matewan did not have other choices of employment and the characters in Norma Rae had the ability to go into the free labor market and be active participants, choosing who they wished to work for. Throughout the film there was evidence of other forms of employment in Henleyville. There were jobs in town that required a higher degree of education that the workers in the mill may have received, a schoolteacher or a police officer for example. However, there were various other jobs in town did not require as much training. Some of these other job opportunities included working at the motel or in the local restaurants or bars as a waiter, a waitress, or a bartender. There were attendants at the gas station and workers at the grocery and convenience stores. In addition to these other choices of employment there was also a different economic system that the workers could have chosen to be a part of. Self – Employment existed in Henleyville. When Norma Rae is talking to Sonny Webster, before they went out on a date, they reminisced about when they were younger. “You used to come into my Mama’s bakery,” be remembered. The presence of other jobs in Henleyville created a free labor market, thus forming a Capitalistic economy.
Andrew West writes, “Capitalism is the progressive ideal, because it is the only social system that leaves man free to pursue – and achieve – his own happiness.” The workers in Norma Rae were pursuing happiness in their jobs. They had already chosen to work at the mill, but now were fighting to create a more suitable environment. The workers wanted longer breaks, better pay, and better physical working conditions.
The working conditions at the O.P Henley Mill were very undesirable. In the beginning of the film the viewer witnesses and incident in which Norma Rae’s mother temporarily looses her hearing. An administrative man assures her not to worry about it, “It happens all the time,” he replied. Norma Rae says, “ Come on Mama, they don’t care anything about you.” The health of the worker is consistently shown to be of little importance to the employer. An elderly woman explained, “They say you have to keep on your feet, unless you have a note from your doctor. We wouldn’t say we were sick if we weren’t.” Her statement is reinforced later in the movie when Norma Rae’s father feels his arm go numb. He asks to take a break, but they insist that he can keep working for another ten or fifteen minutes. He has a heart attack and dies face down in a pile of linen. The significance of this is not that the company caused his heart attack, but that they did not have consideration for him. They did not listen to his complaints and needs, and were more concerned with the amount he could produce in that next fifteen minutes. As a result, he didn’t have the opportunity to get to the doctor or even to die somewhat more peacefully, at least not face down in a pile of cloth.
It is also apparent in the film that the workers do not get paid an adequate wage. One worker explained that has been paid $1.33 a frame since he first began working at the mill. He has not received a raise, despite inflation. Also if the workers got paid what they deserved, they wouldn’t need to work so many hours. The audience can see that Norma Rae’s family is suffering as a result of the long hours she needs to work in order to make a livable income. In the beginning of the film, she tries to motivate her children to do their schoolwork because they had been getting poor grades in school. While she tried to do her part by telling them to do it, she didn’t have the time to sit down with them and insure that it was done, or to give them encouragement. Perhaps if she had to work less she could be a better mother to her children.
To remedy these unsatisfactory conditions, many of the workers want to form a union. Norma Rae and Reuben were the leaders of this group. They worked to spread the word to other workers about the possibility of creating a better environment. They stressed the fact that, the workers did not have to continue working with these
un -pleasantries, that they had the power to initiate change in their favor. Norma Rae and Reuben Warshowsky emphasized the power of “safety in numbers.” If they all banded together as one, they had a better chance at creating more of a voice in the work place. “That’s what a union is, one,” said Norma Rae.
However, getting everyone to work together for a common goal is not a simple process. Andrew West defines Capitalism as, “a social system based on the principle of individual right.” In order to gain these individual freedoms, they employees at the textile mill had to first work together in the form of a union. There are many factors that must be considered before a large group of different people tries to work together. Political, environmental and cultural processes all play a part.
The environment that the film, Norma Rae, takes place in a small southern Baptist town. Many of the citizens of Henleyville have strong oppositions to the union. Norma Rae goes to speak to the minister at the church of which she has been apart of her entire life. She asks his permission to hold a union meeting at the place of worship. She tries to persuade him to believe that the union is the right thing to do and that it would be better for the members of the town. The minister firmly disagrees with her and goes as far as to imply that she is no longer welcome at church. “We’re going to miss your voice in the choir Norma Rae,” he said.
A large cultural barrier in the film was racism. Many of the obstacles that Norma Rae and Reuben Warshowsky faced in creating the union were the existence of racism. After one meeting that Norma Rae held at her house, her husband expressed his concern, “There’s a bunch of black men in there. You’re going to get us in a whole lot of trouble.” The managers at the O.P. Henley Mill use this racial tension to try and divide the workers. They threaten that they will start hiring more black workers if employees keep joining the union. They knew that this would discourage many of the workers from supporting the union, and cause a large distraction.
Reuben brought new culture to Henleyville, Alabama. When Norma discovers that Reuben is Jewish, she says, “You don’t look any different to me.” “We are,” he said. “What makes you different?” She asked. “History,” Reuben explained. Through getting to know Reuben, Norma learned first hand to disregard past anti-Semitic comments she may have heard. He also exposes Norma Rae to literature, like Dylan Thomas.
The union in the film Norma Rae was able to form with more ease than the union in Matewan, because of different political processes. In Matewan, the feudal lord, The Stone Mountain Coal Company, had so much power that they even controlled the existence and enforcement of laws. They were able to claim the workers possessions as the companies, to beat and even kill some workers, without consequence because they manipulated the political system. In Norma Rae the workers had many more political rights. Reuben was able to put up fliers that would attract workers to join the union. In another instance, Norma Rae was asking him if she could get fired for joining the union. Reuben listed off a number of things that she could do to promote the union without being fired. He explained that she could wear buttons on her shirt, hand out fliers during breaks and other additional freedoms.
Eventually, the workers set aside their inhabitations and voted 373 to 427 in favor of the union. When asked, “What are you gonna do now?” Norma Rae said, “live – what else?” The question that the workers at the O.P. Henley Mill were faced with was not, where to work. They had the freedom to choose their employer. The workforce learned that they did not need to be trapped in an insufficient working environment and that by forming a union they could manipulate the parameters set by the Mill Company, to meet their requests.
West, Andrew. Capitalism.org <http://www.capitalism.org.html>
West, Andrew. Capitalism.org <http://www.capitalsim.org/tour/preamble5.html>