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Liking Norma Rae

July 10th, 2007 · No Comments · Activism, Culture, Film, History, Labor, Media, News, Peoria, Politics, The Economy, Stupid

Norma Rae posterAfter reading this piece, which originally ran in The Nation, I bumped Norma Rae up on my Netflix queue and was very glad I did. I was really too young for it when it came out in 1979, and had somehow never gotten around to renting it in the years since.

And seeing Norma Rae now feels particularly timely, in the wake of the Employee Free Choice Act (which would have made it easier for employees to form unions without interference from management) being killed by a Republican filibuster.

Not to mention that guy I saw in Peoria holding the sign a couple of weeks ago.

Norma Rae, of course, portrays in vivid dramatic terms the human cost and effort required to organize a union, as corporate bosses use fear, intimidation, and every kind of obstruction they can think of to keep employees from making a free choice.

And as the Nation piece points out:

The situation has not improved much since … union organizers are battling adversaries as unyielding as any in the days of Norma Rae. According to the labor advocacy group American Rights at Work, last year more than 23,000 Americans were fired or penalized for legal union activity.

The movie succeeds on a lot of different levels. For one thing, it truly is an amazing performance by Sally Field, a complete surrender on the part of the actor to a complex and charismatic character. Watching the DVD extras adds to the impact of the performance, because Sally makes it clear in the interviews that she had a hard time relating to the Norma Rae character when she first read the script — it wasn’t one of those natural and immediate connections that sometimes happens for an actor. The transformation into Norma Rae required a real investment of work and understanding.

The other thing that makes Norma Rae so compelling now is that we live in times when so many people have no understanding of the labor movement or its history, or why unions matter more than ever in this post-NAFTA age.

That once upon a time, we lived in a country where people worked 16 or more hours a day, six or seven days a week, in factories with blocked fire exits and all sorts of hazardous health conditions. And it took a lot of pain and struggle and sacrifice on the part of union organizers and ordinary working people to change all that.

One of my favorite bumper stickers puts it perfectly: “The Labor Movement: The People Who Brought You the Weekend.”

Considering how popular the concept of the weekend is in the US, you’d think unions would get a little bit more respect for having introduced it to American life.

And these days, partly because people have forgotten why unions were important in the first place, the progress they made is being chipped away as jobs continue to leak overseas to sweatshops where people work under conditions as bad as or worse than we ever had here.

This is part of what’s so frustrating about the media’s continued use of the dishonest “Free Trade” frame to discuss trade issues. “Free Trade” is a corporate code phrase for “Unfair Trade,” a devious way of suggesting that the unfettered power of corporations to abuse workers and despoil the environment is somehow related to the concepts of democracy and liberty.

So given all of that, I think Norma Rae, for those who still haven’t seen it, makes a nice crash course introduction to what all this union stuff is about.

As for Ms. Field, I thought this part of the Nation article was something of a revelation as well:

Since then, the entertainment community has kept its distance from the film. One indication of Hollywood’s indifference came six years later, at the 1985 Academy Awards, when Field accepted her Oscar as Best Actress for Places in the Heart. “You like me,” she said effusively, “right now, you like me.” The audience response was nervous laughter, as if Sally Field were so needy as to consider an Academy Award a sign that she was “liked.” This was, of course, not the case. Field had assumed, incorrectly, that most of her colleagues had seen her astonishing performance in Norma Rae. But in fact, many in the audience had no idea that she was referencing one of the picture’s most memorable pieces of dialogue–her character’s realization that her union organizer not merely respected her but liked her as a human being.

Considering how relentlessly parodied Ms. Field has been over the years for that moment, it’s fascinating to finally know why she said what she said, and somewhat chastening to discover that it wasn’t some kind of celebrity insanity — it was an allusion that went over the audience’s heads.

She’ll never live it down, of course. It’s a moment firmly entrenched in the language of comedy. But for me anyway, she’s been vindicated. I do like you, Norma Rae. I really do.


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