Tiny Norma Rae Webster stands atop the machinery in the textile mill where she and her family have worked and suffered intolerable conditions for years. She holds up her hand-made cardboard sign, turning around slowly so everyone can see what she’s written: “UNION.” One-by-one workers in the noisy, dangerous, dust-filled plant turn off their machines. Then, total silence, as the law and company officials take her away.
That scene in the 1979 box-office hit was all it took for Sally Field to shed her Flying Nun image and pick up her first best actress Academy Award. If you’ve never seen the movie, you know the scene, one ripped from the real life of Crystal Lee Sutton, the North Carolina mill worker whose story mirrored and inspired Norma Rae’s.
When I caught “Norma Rae” on TV recently it seemed a relic. Can you imagine any movie being made today with union members as the good guys? After Tuesday’s result in the Wisconsin union-initiated recall election of Gov. Scott Walker, imagine a movie made about unions, period.
It’s not that the positive sheen of union history has been entirely rubbed away. In the state where Sutton fought and won, for a while anyway, memories of the bloody history remain. Companies set up shop and towns in the south to escape unions, and weren’t willing to give up without a fight.
Fast forward to September 2012 when, despite a few protests, the Democrats will throw their convention party in North Carolina, a right-to-work state that still has lower union membership than the other 49 -- 2.9 percent according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Convention officials have expressed support for the party’s traditional allies, but it wasn’t a decision deal breaker. Union leaders may quarrel with Democrats but view the alternative as far worse, so they live with the loss of clout.
Union members, as seen in Wisconsin, don’t always march together. When President Obama visited North Carolina in March, he stopped at one of the few union shops, a successful Daimler Trucks plant in Mount Holly. He was welcomed, though one woman, who wore her UAW local shirt proudly, also identified herself as a Republican, undecided on the election. Taking nothing for granted, workers were still cautious about the economy, their union loyalty the path to a job – for now.
Next door in South Carolina, Republican Nikki Haley rode her union-busting rhetoric and reputation to the governor’s office. Her fight with the National Labor Relations Board – she called it a “rogue agency” – over a non-union Boeing Co. plant is high on her resume. Haley traveled to Wisconsin to support her fellow GOP governor, sharing her star power with Walker, who picked up some of his own after his victory.
The image of union workers with bloated contracts and unreasonable rules standing in the way of economic growth and balanced state budgets is the one that has taken hold, though police and firefighters get a pass that teachers, nursing home workers and janitors don’t.
So many people are working two and three jobs with no benefits for whatever they can earn, unions don’t get much sympathy or the benefit of the doubt.
What “Norma Rae” was fighting was literally in front of moviegoers’ faces – cotton dust that hung in the factory air and coated workers’ lungs. Yet for the workers in those plants, it wasn’t even simple back then in the 1970’s. Fear scared many off from union activity. Would the plant retaliate or even shut down, leaving a workforce or town with no alternatives or hope?
America since “Norma Rae” has changed. Many of those mills have disappeared, shut down or moved to other countries. “Norma Rae” is gone, too. Crystal Lee Sutton died in 2009. Her life and hard work didn’t change much after the movie. She worked as a union organizer and, after earning certification from community college, ran a day care center in her home. Her son said she kept a reminder on her living room wall -- that iconic picture of Field in “Norma Rae.”
But for so many others, how that heroic union memory has faded.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3