Sarah Cumbie
Economics in Popular Film
Professor Gabriel

October 6, 1999

Norma Rae and Labor Conflict

Labor conflict is strongly portrayed in Norma Rae, especially since in the second half of the 20th century labor unions are taken for granted as a basic worker's right (even as membership declines). Norma Rae both emphasizes the power unemployment has over the worker and shows the power that unions can have in the capitalist system. Companies want to control every aspect of the labor process because they need to make profits, and the way in which they control the labor process in Norma Rae (in an attempt to manipulate worker behavior) infringes on basic human rights. Norma Rae, however, has never behaved, and it is her strength and gumption that bring humanity (and a labor union) to the O.P. Henley Mill. The tactics which the O.P. Henley Mill employ in order to maintain control over their employees highlight the real threat unions pose to profits.

Workers take much bigger risks than capitalists because workers are personally invested in a job; their livelihood is threatened when the company suffers economic problems, relocates, or consolidates workers and technology. While a company's directors and owners may feel the economic pinch of less consumer spending, it is the worker who "stands to lose all of his or her income" (Bowles 130). Norma Rae dramatizes the fears of its characters when Norma Rae points out that the O.P. Henley Mill is one of the few places to work in Henleyville, especially in unskilled labor. The constant threat of unemployment weakens the workersí bargaining power with the company, in effect giving the company a large advantage that allows the managers to ignore basic human comforts and safety. Rigid control over the labor process allows for higher profits.  Lack of good alternative jobs explains why wages at the factory remain low which also raises profits.  The workers are mistreated, yet they arenít complaining because of the threat of losing their jobs (139).

Unions are the biggest threat to the O.P. Henley factory because they give workers more control over their pay and working conditions.  If a union treats all members as equals, there is less chance for arguments among workers that might give managers more power over a divided work force.  The more power workers have through their union, the less control the managers have over the labor process (215).  Norma Rae is the O. P. Henley companyís worst nightmare. She has never been a silent, accommodating worker, always complaining for worker privileges and safety, whether it be a Kotex machine in the restroom or her motherís temporary loss of hearing. A tactic which companies use to control workers like Norma Rae is bureaucratic control; the company promotes Norma Rae to a less strenuous, better paying job in order to quiet her down, and by assigning this job, where Norma Rae is a speed up supervisor, the company actually makes more profits because Norma Raeís position requires her to generate more work from the other employees (207).

When the threat of unionization among the textile workers seems greatest, the O.P. Henley Mill manipulates the racial tensions at the mill to create divisions among the workers. Companies use discrimination and the social concept of race "to stimulate and reinforce divisions among workers." (217)  In this case, management threatens to hire more black workers to replace the white workers if they join the union. The racial fears taught in the South provide the basis for extreme tactics which effectively eliminate the advances made toward unionization. The mill workers were also wary of unionization because of the threat that they could be fired for unionizing, a myth still perpetrated, but false. Once again the mill was using the threat of unemployment and the loss of income as a way to control workers and keep them subordinate.

Norma Rae offers the audience an important lesson in capitalism in the 70s, showing that unions and unionization canít be taken for granted, and that labor control is still a large part of the agenda of companies as they attempt to expand profits. In Understanding Capitalism, the authors bluntly state that "Profits are possible only if capitalists have a certain degree of power over workers" (131). The key then is to find some sort of medium that supports profit making and workers, and unions are the best answer to this conflict so far. Capitalism promised to abolish feudal hierarchies and offer voluntary labor contracts, but as it stands today, workers have had to decide which capitalistic hierarchy to work in, and many of these workers spend their entire lives in hierarchically organized jobs (223). Unions give workers some freedom from the hierarchy, but today finding a job is not so much about making labor contracts with your equals as it is about saving yourself from unemployment and competing with equally qualified laborers for the same job, often for a company within which you neither have a vested interest nor a share in its profits. Only approximately 12% of the workers in the United States are unionized, yet a substantial number of unions could revolutionize worker influence in capitalism (215). The stress of labor conflict must have gotten to the point where workers have given up their hope for fair labor practices, or else they have settled for less. There is no place for Norma Rae in these work places.