When The Looms Went Quiet: The Female Struggle For Unionization In Norma Rae

In the Film, Norma Rae and everyone in the factory are from a similar economic and social background, but they are further segregated by race and even religion. Apart from the bosses at the mill, everyone in the town is working class. There is no real mention in the movie of a university nearby, or opportunities for higher learning, or better jobs. With this kind of environment, people have to go with the status quo of their community because there is no acceptance of revolutionaries. Norma Rae is said to be the third generation working at the mill and this further shows how all the people in the area are treated like mules, worked to death and then the cycle repeats with their children.

When it comes to breaking the power hold of higher classes over lower ones, the most oppressed people require protection and encouragement from those with wealth and education. For instance, when Norma Rae is put in prison, she calls the union organizer, Reuben and not her husband because she knows Reuben can make the bail. Without a union organizer, or the government backing, working class citizens are neither seen nor heard because class tension pits people against each other, while higher ups reap the benefits. What is worse, the poorest of the poor are usually minorities and so they receive even more oppression from all angles.

I will speak more about race later on, but I just wanted to mention how the hierarchy of class is repeated in a hierarchy of the poor. For instance, working class men generally have more power than women, and white working class men have more power than working class blacks. All people involved are afraid of losing what little power they have and so they fight for scraps and end up dividing the power they could gain by working together.

When it comes to depicting class war in the media, films have to appeal to a large audience. Therefore, they might spread those narrow-minded ideas that are rooted in capitalist societies. However, Beach (2002) talks about how Hollywood films can sometimes comment more critically on social problems through satire and “it is with the growing complexity and increasingly contradictory nature of social relations during this period that the most self-reflective films of the era, including comedies, had to struggle… to offer more trenchant insights into the contemporary sociocultural experience” (Beach, 2002, p. 181). This means that the diversity of people watching movies forces directors to have a balanced narrative if they want to provide the masses with entertainment. Norma Rae is successful because it appeals to anyone who understands the importance of having good working conditions and supporting communities to set aside their differences and work together.

Rural towns may be able to boast a tight knit community, but this also means that they lack exposure to new ideas and that can lead to fears about change. The first confrontation between Reuben and Norma’s father shows how capitalistic beliefs fill the minds of even the people who are being used by capitalists. Norma’s father calls Reuben many nasty things, including a communist. Since capitalism is the belief in individual freedom and self-sufficiency, even the lowest classes were filled with a pride in being able to feed their families. Griffin (2011) explains that “anxieties related to growing class disparities, a crumbling manufacturing sector, vitriolic cultural debate, and accelerated globalization are soothed with invocations of a triumphant American will, apple pie, porch swings, and town square parades”. I think this image of American pride and the images of small town comforts fit nicely with the images from Norma Rae (1979). People felt that they worked hard, but they also enjoyed a good life because of their efforts.

More importantly, the working class people in Norma Rae (1979) feared unions because they felt that unions themselves brought violence and retribution from the businesses. Placing blame on union workers rather than on the mill owners is a form of scapegoating. To this, Griffin (2011) warns that “when schoolteachers, sanitation workers, and other public sector employees are offered up as the scapegoats of capitalist excess—and, en masse, Americans seem to buy it—I can’t help but think that the Left is failing to participate in political debate in a way that energizes people, much less foments change”. Griffin is commenting on liberal leaders being unable to show the connection between big businesses and social atrocities, meanwhile Hollywood is still selling stories about solving oppression with violence and the news media covers protests in a negative light.

All of the mixed messages mean that while poor people are seen as disruptive to the status quo, businesses are seen as providers of work. No one can afford to lose their job, so they band together against the people who try to stand up for their rights. This is a form of internal oppression which is very obvious in Norma Rae (1979). People stop talking to Reuben and they start threatening union members with violence because they want to maintain whatever miniscule power they think they have. However, it is clear from this movie, that working class people have almost no power unless they band together and demand change. 

What are the conditions of working class people?

Even today, there are jobs that require hard labour in undesirable environments, and people often receive very little pay for them. For instance fruit pickers and farmhands are often exposed to chemicals and hazardous weather and they are not always well-compensated. Wolf (1980) notes that at the time their article was written, very few people even understood the current struggles for unionization and protection for workers where they are being exposed to poor conditions.

In terms of the health and safety standards of Norma Rae’s world, Wolf (1980) explains that “According to the North Carolina Department of Labor, cotton dust levels in the Stevens Roanoke Rapids plant are 12 times greater than the permissible level under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) standard”. This is an outrageous statistic and it shines a light to the union meeting scene, where one woman talks about her husband passing away from what was called ‘brown lung disease’. Apart from the terrible air quality, there was also the noise pollution from all of the looms and machinery. Wolf (1980) explains that “noise levels in some departments are more than 20 times as loud as the permissible level under OSHA”.

In companies where employees are valued, efforts are made to keep them healthy and safe. So here, the difference between working class people and middle class people comes down to their conditions and compensations. As is seen in Norma Rae (1979), not only are working class people the least valued in society, but they are also oppressed by corporations that would prefer to keep them in horrible conditions, and further segregated by governments in order to keep them from working together across genders, religions, and races.

The opening music of this movie is hopeful, the lyrics talk about freedom from hardship for the working man and his children. But this music is juxtaposed with the sounds from the factory. The noise from the textile mill is chaotic and intimidating, showing right away that working conditions are horrid. In Wolf’s (1980) words, because half of the movie takes place with this background noise, “we see how the work permeates their lives”. The factory is so loud in fact, that Norma’s mother has gone deaf in the first scene. The mill’s doctor has no sympathy though, stating that her hearing will probably come back and if it does not, then she should probably find a different job. To this, Norma Rae says “what other job in this town? This is the only job” (1979). This is a profound statement because it means that the people in the movie really have no choice but to work for this mill. They cannot risk their jobs to unionize because some of the characters even receive pay cuts and threats of being fired when they join the union. Since the mill is so powerful in this town, it has no fear of repercussion for these unlawful conditions.

Another example of just how bad life was for working class people is seen when Norma’s father has a heart attack in the mill. Just before his death, he asks the manager for a break since his arm has gone numb. The manager thinks nothing of it and tells him to keep working until his break. Maybe if he had had a moment to sit down, his death could have been prevented, but this scene speaks to the sense of inhumanity in the factory setting. 

Men in Norma’s Life/ Men in her Way

Black people and women alike have had to work much harder than white men to have their voice heard in the workplace and in society. In general, feminism in Norma Rae (1979) is handled well, because Norma faces confrontation and intimidation head on. She refuses to be put down by the men who want to hold power over her. Whether it is a man in her personal life, or the workplace, Norma fights their sexism with courage. When all of the bosses surround her while she writes down the letter, accusing them of racism, she just keeps on writing, speaking loudly about her right to be there and making sure she has all of their names before they can fire her. When they do fire her, she just marches out into the factory and holds her demonstration. She is not even intimidated by the Sheriff, although her trust in him proves to be misplaced when he arrests her for protesting.

Most of the men in Norma’s life have been self-serving and have tried to use her in some way. The father of her child does not help to raise him, the man she is sleeping with hits her when she ends their affair, and even one of the managers has tried to sleep with her. Her own husband yells at her for being a part of the union, but to his credit, he only loses his temper once and he never mistreats her. Tom (2014) express that usually in film, “a woman is either a goal or an obstacle, and rarely is the subject of change and domination”. Since Norma Rae is a fearless leader in this movie, she steps out of the gender role.

Of all the confrontation with men in this movie, I was moved by the scene where the reverend refuses to allow black people in his church for a union meeting. At this point, Norma makes a remark about his lack of Christian values and then she just leaves the congregation without hesitating. I thought that this was a comment about her personal sense of what is right. Since she is often slandered as an unmarried mother, her actions show that she is actually more moral than the town’s reverend. She knows that it is more important to band people together than to keep them separated, and by bringing races and genders together, she can give everyone a louder voice against the mill owners.

One final thing that I wanted to mention was the relationship between Norma and Reuben. I felt that it was important that they never had sex in this movie because even though they were attracted to each other, they both had a duty to their partners and to the cause. Giroux (1980) writes, “Their attraction is brisk, and energy-filled, but it is an attraction mediated by awareness of its own limits”. It is unusual for a Hollywood movie not to follow the acceptable plotline of falling in love during a crisis, so I think this makes Norma Rae (1979) an exceptional piece of feminist art. It shows how a woman can be completely free from a man, while working alongside men, women, blacks and whites.

Working Women and Sisterhood

Another key part of this movie that makes it valuable for feminist art is the relationships between women in the workplace. First of all, Giroux (1980) states that “a portrait of how members of the work force are pitted and manipulated against each other through the division of labor in the mill is vividly illustrated when the plant manager attempts to quiet Norma Rae by giving her a promotion to quality control checker”. I have already talked about the separation of people based on sex and race. However, I wanted to talk about the scene right after Norma quits the quality control position. As soon as she rejoins her friends, a woman comes to her and wraps her apron around her. I felt this was a simple symbol for the friendship that had been reborn after she held to her morals and quit that job.

Women in the workplace had to band together, especially during the unionization. Wolf (1980) quotes Crystal Lee Jordan herself, who noted that “in an effort to undermine the union, company sympathizers would spread the rumor ‘there are a bunch of whores out there [campaigning] for the union.’” If women started fighting between themselves, they would have no chance to change things because as Bodner (2005) explains, “in this political culture, workingmen stood above women”. Women had to rely on each other and this is seen as Norma is always met with support from women, even if it is only a smile or a nod. Actually, when Norma makes her demonstration, I noticed that the women are the first ones to turn off their machines.

Apart from remaining friendly to her, women are also vocal about the troubles they have faced, like watching their husbands die, having to stand even when they are suffering from menstrual pain, and knowing that their children will experience the same conditions if they do not work together.

There are many men who are part of the cause too, but Bodner (2005) expresses how “cultural narratives were marked by the merger of all kinds of ‘grim antagonisms’: worker versus capital; collective versus individual; male versus female”. In Norma Rae (1979), all three of these binaries are seen and all three of them have to be met with courage from the underdog. Since Norma is a woman, she is faced with the power play of her male managers. Since she is a worker, she is met with strict expectations from the bosses and she has no power to change their working conditions.

At first, because she is only one individual trying to change things for eight hundred other people, it seems like she is outnumbered. However, all of her efforts do rally people together and she leads a collective after all. Therefore, Norma Rae (1979) is an example of how a woman can step away for her gender role and be met with acceptance and help from other women and men. In this way, Bodner (2005) states cleanly that “millions of working people and leaders abandoned traditions that had separated them in earlier times and pragmatically formed alliances to press their demands for economic justice during hard times”.

Realistic Characters versus Realistic Results

One criticism I have for this movie is the final scene, where right after the vote, Reuben leaves the mill workers to their fate. The scene leads people to believe that the process really is this simple, however, according to Wolf (1980), “Ritt's version of union struggle is softened in spite of the fact that so many of the tactics of old are used by J.P. Stevens today”. While the movie is quite tame, Reuben himself talks about the violence and persecution against union workers in other parts of the country. This small North Carolina town should consider itself lucky that it was not torn apart. In reality, unionization meant serious suffering for working class people and this struggle is only hinted at in the movie. That being said, Giroux (1980) comments that “The film is not meant to provide a false utopian faith in the power of unions as much as it is meant to provide an article of faith in the power of men and women to struggle together to overcome the forces that oppress them”.

I think the power of men and women is very important, but it has to be done in a way that is not like a superhero movie where everyone is perfect and nothing goes wrong. Norma Rae is a believable character because of her faults, and because of her morals. Just before she is promoted near the beginning of the movie, the boss talks about all of the things she has asked for in the past, like a tampon dispenser, longer breaks and how she has been loud about wanting better working conditions in general. At first Norma takes the promotion because it will mean her wage is doubled, but as she realizes how it affects her friends and how it affects her relationships, she tries to quit. The boss will not fire her though, he uses his power over her and his knowledge that she has nowhere else to go, and he expects her to just go back to her previous position and keep her head down. Norma does not keep her head down. Her character is even more believable because she is consistently outspoken and she never backs down.

Even though Norma’s protest happens in a flash, the build up for it is well done. The tension from being fired by the managers, receiving weak support from her friends, and finding that her life might fall apart if she does not act quickly, all force Norma to stand on a table with a sign that has only one word on it: Union. This demonstration causes an immediate ripple effect. Since everyone has been affected in some way by the poor working conditions, the mistreatment from employers and the possibility of freedom, they have no choice but to stand with Norma. Once everyone has joined her protest, the silence in the room is uncomfortable. No one knows where to go from there, but Norma steps down from the table believing that this moment of solidarity will not be forgotten. Even though Norma is arrested outside the building, she has made a real impact on everyone in that room and she is not broken by this experience.

Her moment of tears after Reuben bails her out shows that she is not without a vulnerable side either. Still, when Reuben talks about the true atrocities faced by union workers in other areas, I felt that this movie had only scratched the surface of the history. I thought it was noble how Norma wakes up her children to explain the situation to them and to prepare them for what might happen next, this is apparently something that Crystal Lee Jordan actually did (Wolf, 1980). In Wolf’s (1980) words, “The documented history of the tactics J.P. Stevens has utilized in reality encompasses the use of far more power than this fictionalized account even begins to hint at”. So, while I was very impressed with Norma as a character, I was not totally impressed with the quick ending because it felt too fast.


Hollywood does not always make an effort to create a movie that depicts the struggles of working class people realistically. However, Norma Rae (1979) is an optimistic view of a real woman’s battle for equality in the workplace. What makes it even more remarkable is the way she fought for all workers in the mill, not just herself, and not just other white women. I think this movie shows how the working conditions for the poorest people are kept low because those people are not always willing to work together. Even still, this movie portrays people’s ability to fight oppression in the workplace through uniting themselves regardless of gender or race. In uniting, they can make great change and in this case, a woman can have a great impact on her world even though the odds are against her. 

16 December 2021
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