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April 16, 2014

When ‘Norma Rae’ Met the NLRB Nominees

“Norma Rae,” the 1979 pro-union film that won Sally Field a Best Actress Oscar for the title role as a union organizer in a textile mill, was the featured Screen on the Green film on Monday night, just a few short hours before the Senate would break a years-long logjam to start filling the National Labor Relations Board.

It was hard not to reflect on the strange happenstance — the unrelated pairing of the movie and the epic struggle to fill the seats of the federal agency that is supposed to protect employee rights and prevent unfair labor practices.

On Monday night, as Field’s character climbed up on a table at the mill and defiantly brandished a home-made sign that said “UNION,” it was as if the Capitol building — off to the side of the screen — was also a witness. The movie was based on the story of the real-life Crystal Lee Sutton, who in 1974 did indeed hold a “UNION” sign above her head on the day she was fired from her job at the J.P. Stevens mill in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. She, too, had been attempting to copy down a notice management had posted that was designed to foment racial antagonism and was fired, according to historian Jefferson Cowie in his book, “Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class.”

A late conversation in the movie between Norma Rae and Reuben Warshowsky (played by Ron Leibman), the organizer  who first recruited her, offers a possible clue as to what the members of the finally functioning NLRB might be thinking now.

“What are you going to do now?” Warshowsky asks Norma Rae after the workers at her old plant vote to unionize.

“Live. What else?” she says.

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