IT OCCURRED to us last April 14 that the J. P. Stevens Company was doomed to total defeat in its 17-year battle with what has since become the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers union. Inside information played no part in our revelation. Nor did our faith in the triumph (eventually) of justice, or any belief that J. P. Stevens was about to run out of federal courts in which to lose its appeals from National Labor Relations Board decisions in favor of the union's trying to organize the company's workers. What led directly to out perception was Sally Field's acceptance of her deserved Academy Award for Best Actress. Miss Field won the Oscar for her portrayal of a fiesty textile worker named Norma Rae who is fired for her union-organizing activities in a Carolina town. "Norma Rae" turned out to be based on the actual experiences of Crystal Lee Sutton of Burlington, N.C., and formerly of the J. P. Stevens Company.
Mrs. Sutton was fired from her job for what was officially called "insubordination," but what she insisted was her union-organizing. As disagreements occasionally will, this one ended up in federal court and resulted in J. P. Stevens' payment of $13,436 to Mrs. Sutton. At the time of her discharge (which the court overturned), she was earning $2.65 and hour. Thus, the company check represented her gross earnings for over 126 40-hour work weeks.
Like most Academy Awards, the one to Miss Field led directly to 1) much being written about the heroine and 2) millions of paid admissions to see the film. Unless the moviegoers happened to be charter members of the National Right to Work Committee, chances were better than good that he or she would emerge from the theater cheering for Norma Rae and the Union and against the Big, Powerful, Impersonal Company.
To see this film is to be persuaded of the importance of OSHA in helping banish the din and the dust from the mill's work space and the workers' lungs. The white hats are the workers and the black hat are the bosses, who are a lot bigger.
Which bigness is at the very heart of the bias against American Business. The bad guys in these films are invariably big before they are bad. David and-Goliath is rewritten a couple of thousand times a year in songs and screenplays, and Goliath is more often than not a Fortune 500 company, or at least the management of one. Who has heard a fold song called "If I Had a Prospectus" or "Where Have All the Mergers Gone?" When did you last hear someone sing, "I dreamed I saw Andrew Carnegie last night . . ."?
Maybe there will be a film someday in which the sympathetic bond lawyer courageously speaks out for a lower prime against the advice of his cautious colleagues. Maybe the hero will even be the biggest bond lawyer, and the movie theme will be "The Ballad of Daddy Warbucks." But until then, people, especially moviegoing people, will probably root and cheer for the textile workers, and Life will continue to imitate Art.