The most enduring image of the film Norma Rae, which was released 40 years ago, is surely Sally Field’s titular character silently standing on a table, holding up a cardboard sign with the word union scrawled on it. One by one, her fellow factory workers shut off their deafening textile machines in solidarity. The climactic scene suggests triumph and inspiration, but by this point in the movie, Norma Rae has already been fired from her job. It’s important to remember why.
In the film, a labor organizer from New York named Reuben Warshowsky (played by Ron Leibman) arrives in North Carolina hoping to unionize the workers at a local factory. Inspired by the cause and frustrated in her job, Norma Rae joins Reuben in handing out leaflets and rallying coworkers to sign union cards. Although Reuben assures Norma Rae that she can’t be fired for promoting unionization, she loses her job while trying to expose management’s attempts to thwart the effort. The bosses’ tactic: posting an inflammatory letter on the factory bulletin board in a bid to drive a wedge between white workers and black workers.
Norma Rae was based on a true account. In 1973, The New York Times ran a profile of Crystal Lee Jordan, a mill worker from Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, who joined the Textile Workers Union of America—and who really did stand on a table, sign in hand. Although Martin Ritt, the director, once said that his primary interest was in Jordan’s personal tale and that he “couldn’t have cared less about labor unions,” the real story behind Norma Rae was one of solidarity. Intended or not, the film has as much to say about the forces that threatened to destroy the U.S. labor movement through racial division as it does the individuals who helped make the movement possible.