40 Years Ago, Norma Rae Understood How Corporations Weaponized Race

The 1979 Sally Field–starring drama showed how solidarity between black and white workers was often targeted to undermine the power of labor unions.

Sally Field in a famous scene from Norma Rae (20th Century Fox / Everett Collection)

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.

In the 1960s and ’70s, organized labor in the U.S. found itself at a crossroads. In 1935, Franklin Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act, which guaranteed workers the right to form unions, strike, and collectively bargain. In the years following the New Deal and World War II, unions saw a surge in membership, procuring economic security for millions and political power for worker rights. However, the emerging civil-rights and feminist movements called into question the mainstream labor movement’s commitment to all working people.

These newer movements were by no means ideologically opposed to unions. In a 1961 speech to the AFL-CIO convention, Martin Luther King Jr. argued that there was “no intrinsic difference” in the goals of the civil-rights movement and those of the labor movement, despite outsider attempts “to impose disunity by dividing brothers because the color of their skin has a different shade.” Together, the two movements made for powerful allies; many labor leaders rallied behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which made workplace—and union—discrimination illegal. A diversified workforce led to more diversified unions.

Reuben Warshowsky (far right), played by Rob Leibman, attempts to organize workers. (20th Century Fox / Everett Collection)

That’s not to say the path to worker solidarity was always smooth. Even after 1964, many unions barred black members from leadership positions, and corporate America would often leverage racial conflict to exploit internal divisions. One year before the release of Norma Rae, Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto starred in Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar, a movie about three friends torn apart after a botched plan to rob their corrupt union. Labor movements fail, Kotto’s character explains, when “they”—be it factories or unions—“pit the lifers against the new boys, the young against the old, the black against the white. Everything they do is to keep us in our place.” Richard Nixon’s presidency brought the rise of affirmative-action programs targeting certain workplaces, which generated resentment among some white union members. Meanwhile the civil-rights leader and activist Bayard Rustin warned black workers that one such program, The Philadelphia Plan, was intentionally designed to generate animosity between black and white employees, calling it “part and parcel of a general Republican attack on labor.”

Norma Rae not only insisted that racial solidarity could solve economic injustice, but it also suggested that worker solidarity could overcome social injustice. White supremacy has a strong grip on the southern town where Norma Rae lives. When she asks her minister for permission to hold an integrated meeting about the union in the church, he accuses her of blasphemy. Unperturbed, Norma Rae decides she will host the meeting herself. But when she brings her black coworkers into her home, her husband, Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), accuses her of “going too far,” worried that she’ll get the family “in trouble.” By contrast, a meeting held at the local black Baptist church features the Jewish Warshowsky literally preaching from the pulpit: The union, he says, “spoke in one voice, and they were heard. And they were black and white. They were Irish and Polish. And they were Catholic, and they were Jews. And they were one. That’s what a union is. One.”

Norma Rae’s optimism was built upon the real-life unionization of the southern textile industry throughout the 1970s, thanks to the collective organizing of black and white workers, most of whom were women. But the film’s decision to focus on Norma Rae also undercuts its message of solidarity. Despite Warshowsky’s entreaties for all workers to speak as one, the movie preaches more than it practices, spending time on Norma Rae and Warshowsky’s platonic relationship at the expense of broader representation. Norma Rae’s few black characters with speaking roles gesture vaguely to how they’ve been “pushed, pulled, and scorned,” but they’re mostly relegated to the background. Even the film’s most violent conflict—in which a black man is assaulted by a group of his white peers who believe the factory bosses’ claims that black workers will “take over the union”—is quickly overshadowed by Norma Rae’s dramatic firing.

The labor struggle may be shared in Norma Rae, but the film’s imagery still basks in the individual bravery of one white woman who can literally bring the grinding machine of corporate capitalism to a halt. Norma Rae is depicted as a champion of labor, a defender of civil rights, and an icon of feminist liberation. “She stood up on a table,” Warshowsky tells a surprised Webster. “She’s a free woman.”

It’s no surprise that Norma Rae would become, as Warshowsky compliments its heroine, “the shining face” of the 1970s labor movement, eclipsing the stark realism of Barbara Kopple’s 1976 Oscar-winning documentary about the Brookside mining strike, Harlan County, USA, and the grim pessimism of Blue Collar. Although Norma Rae opened to mixed reviews—The New York Times and The Washington Post noted its “endearing but dopey” message and “bombastic exposition,” respectively—critics universally praised Field’s performance, which netted her an Oscar for Best Actress.

Despite Norma Rae’s victory for organized labor in the popular imagination, it also seemed to mark the end of an era. In 1979, a record-high 21 million Americans belonged to a union, representing 23 percent of the salaried workforce. But just two years later, the labor movement suffered a highly visible political defeat when Ronald Reagan—who’d once served as the president of the Screen Actors Guild union for seven terms—famously fired more than 12,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization during his first year in the White House. Since then, union membership has steadily declined, coincident with rising income-inequality rates. In 2018, 14.7 million workers were unionized, constituting only 10.5 percent of the workforce.

But contemporary labor movements haven’t necessarily lost their energy. Last year, 485,000 workers, primarily in education and healthcare, went on strike—a 30-year high. In August, the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee led a strike calling for “an immediate end to prison slavery.” These movements are undoubtedly about unfair labor practices, but they’re also about protesting larger systemic injustices that go beyond wages and working conditions. The Fight for $15 campaign to raise the minimum wage has united labor activists with groups like Black Lives Matter in the same spirit of solidarity that helped propel the civil-rights movement.

Labor organizing has also made its return to the cultural sphere. Popular depictions of unions dwindled after Norma Rae. Although the economic conditions of the working class remained a popular subject for film and television, attempts to change them through organized means were less visible—until last year, with the release of Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, which revolves around the formation of a telemarketers union. The movie shares much of Norma Rae’s commitment to interracial solidarity with the addition of the racial diversity the earlier movie sorely lacks (one fantastical plot even allows for an interspecies allyship). One of Sorry to Bother You’s main characters compares the telemarketers’ strike to “a scene out of Norma Rae,” but adds a winking joke about the formation of a sign-twirlers union.

For better or worse, that famous union sign may be Norma Rae’s legacy, but it should be seen as more than a memorable image from Hollywood history. That humble piece of cardboard is a symbol of solidarity—a sign of what labor movements are made of, and a sign of the racial unity they should continue to strive for.