In the Movie Norma Rae (1979) - (Sally Field) is a minimum-wage worker in a cotton mill that has taken too much of a toll on the health of her family for her to ignore her Dickensian working...

In the Movie Norma Rae (1979) - (Sally Field) is a minimum-wage worker in a cotton mill that has taken too much of a toll on the health of her family for her to ignore her Dickensian working conditions. After hearing a speech by New York union organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman), Norma Rae decides to join the effort to unionize her shop. Overall,this causes conflict at home when Norma Rae's husband Sonny (Beau Bridges) says she's not spending enough time in the home. Despite the pressure brought to bear by management, when confronted, Norma Rae takes a piece of cardboard, writes the word "UNION" in block letters, stands on her worktable, and slowly turns to show the sign around the room. One by one, other workers stop their mill machines, and eventually, the entire room becomes silent, after all machines have been switched off. Norma Rae then successfully orchestrates an election to unionize the factory, resulting in victory for the union. 

After watching the Film, brainstorm the fallowing - How the film changed your understanding of or feelings about union organizing and why people seek to join unions or why it did not.

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Anyone who has read The Jungle by muckraker Upton Sinclair about the Chicago stockyards and the atrocities committed against the workers or the history of the Teamsters Union or the early histories of the Industrial Revolution in England and the histories of the mills and sweatshops and factories of America where young workers were even thrown into the machines and killed if they did not comply understands the necessity for the creation of unions. However, a review of the modern histories of the United Steelworkers' Union which priced itself out of business or the Teamsters or other extremely powerful unions such as the AFL-CIO also knows the abuses of unionization against management and its own members, at times. Certainly, one cannot help noting that Right to Work states are bringing in more businesses and doing better economically than states with unionization.)

The problem, then, is one of human nature. "Man is a wolf to man," a Russian proverb,depicts the essential fact that people will exploit other people when they have the power. The insensitivity and greed of management led to the creation of organized labor, who were cruelly abused by having to work in sordid conditions for long hours and poor pay as were the textile workers in Alabama; however, once unions gained the power over management, there were numerous abuses. [e.g. A documentary on Chrysler workers revealed workers smoking marijuana and drinking on their lunch hours. One man was caught coming to work inebriated on two occasions. But the union kept these men from being fired.] Furthermore, when union workers make more than the average person and do not need to worry about being fired, it is hard for people to afford their products or they are reluctant to buy them as they are often carelessly mane; consequently, their company often goes out of business or has to get bailed out by the government. 

The merger of the ACWA with the Textile Workers Union of America in 1976 produced a new union, the ACTWU, which had a membership of about 500,000. Over the next two decades the ACTWU’s membership shrank along with employment in the American apparel industry, and in 1995 the ACTWU merged with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union to form the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), with a total membership of about 350,000.

In addition, certain unions are so powerful nowadays that they control political elections, state and national. Unfortunately, those that hold power such as union bosses and stewards become corrupted, too, and really do not serve their members well all the time, even though some may remember abuses by employers.

caledon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Since the question is asking for the student's opinion, there's really no substitute for analyzing the film according to this prompt and formulating a response of one's own. This answer will attempt to create a framework in which you can draft an opinion that successfully addresses to the prompt and creates a foundation for a thorough response.

1. How did the film change your understanding or feelings.

This requires that you had a prior understanding (including an absence of understanding, maybe you didn't even know unions existed). You need to explain what this prior understanding was, specifically focusing upon the basic facts you knew and the things about them which led you to form an opinion about it. However, even though the prompt frames this in a leading way (implying that the film changed your understanding) you do not necessarily have to scrounge around for a half-honest self-evaluation just to live up to the prompt's expectations. This kind of approach is what leads to responses like "I now understand that unions are very important". Teachers don't want to see this. This is why the prompt includes "why it did not" at the end (I notice many students tend to miss options that are offered at the end of a prompt). If your understanding was not changed, explain why. Did the film not contain anything new to you? Did you not understand the film's point? Elaborate.

2. Why people seek to join unions

This is where a bit of research would greatly support your points. Consider that the film is a movie, not a documentary; it is not obligated to portray events in a fair or historically accurate manner, but rather, to evoke a feeling in its audience. The fact that this is what movies do is at least as important as what the movie is about; the film is specifically trying to make you sympathize with Norma Rae.

In real life, the film is based on the efforts of a textile worker, Crystal Lee Sutton, to unionize her factory. Though Sutton's website states she was making less than $3 an hour (an unthinkable amount in today's terms), when adjusted for inflation we see that this was actually a normal wage at the time Sutton was employed. Also consider that Sutton's husband divorced her following the events portrayed in the film, in contrast to the show of solidarity that Sonny makes.

These factors lead us to consider that the reason people seek to join unions in this film is not necessarily the complete picture of what people do in real life, which is "dirtier" and less sympathetic.

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