Director: Martin Ritt
Screenplay: Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr.
With Sally Field, Ron Leibman, Beau Bridges, and others
While the credits are rolling, the viewer is introduced to the central location of the action, the O. P. Henley Textile Mill in Henleyville, somewhere in South Carolina. A series of shots shows spinning and sewing machines, mechanical looms, sorters, moving bales of cotton, boxes full of yarn, and roles of terry cloth. A few operatives are visible as they attend to their various jobs. They are dwarfed by the overwhelming mass of equipment in motion; it is clear that they are nothing more than appendices to their machines.
A series of still photographs introduces Norma Rae (Sally Field), the protagonist of the story. She is shown as a young girl, as a teenager, as a bride, as a mother of two, as a waitress, and finally as a woman at thirty-two. She is good-looking, self-confident, and, as the script puts it, “mature, strong, with humor, without illusion.” The year is 1978.
The story begins with an incident during Norma’s lunch break at the mill. The whole place is, again according to the script, “like a battle field, full of a jolting, nerve-shattering din. In the enormous space, rows and rows of old wooden looms roar like waterfalls and shake the floors with ceaseless trembling vibrations. The sound is deafening, the constant punishing, racketing motion disorienting.” In a small cubicle adjacent to the factory floor Norma tries to talk to her mother Leona (Barbara Baxley), but Leona seems to have lost her hearing. Norma frantically drags her to the company doctor’s office. Dr. Watson (Booth Colman) is not particularly concerned. He explains that the mother’s condition is only temporary, and that it occurs all the time. Because Norma is upset and not easily pacified, Dr. Watson offers a note that would allow Leona to go home for the day. Norma, however, remains angry: “Come on, Momma,” she tells Leona while leading her away, “you’re nothing to any of them.”
The next scene shows Norma at home. Widowed, she lives with her two children in her parents' rather modest house. Although she is an adult woman, her father Vernon (Pat Hingle) tries to controle her life as much as possible, particularly with respect to men. Norma has to use lies to have any freedom at all. While she is haggling with her father, the door bell rings, and Reuben Warshovsky (Ron Leibman) appears at the screen door. Reuben explains to Vernon that he is trying to rent a room in the house of a mill operative. He is a union organizer from the national office who has just arrived in town; he would like to get to know some mill workers personally. Vernon reacts with extreme hostility. "As far as I am concerned, you're all communists or agitators or crooks or Jews or all four together. Any town you show up, folks get thrown out of work and get their heads busted," he tells Reuben. Although Norma tries to intervene, Vernon threatens the organizer with physical harm and orders him away.
Norma and Reuben run into each other again at the local motel, where the organizer is renting a room for himself. Norma has a date with George Benson (James Luisi), a married man with whom she has had an affair for some time. She is far from happy in that relationship, and she tells her lover that this was the last time they would be together. George insults her rudely, and then hits her hard in the face. Reuben sees her stumbling past his open door, and he offers her an ice pack for her swelling cheek. During the following conversation Norma curiously looks at the organizer's room and personal effects, while learning that he is a Jew from New York City whose girlfriend is a "hotshot labor lawyer out of Harvard." Norma wonders about her own limited life and sad affairs: "Me and men. I ought to learn to say No from the start. But if it wasn't men, I don't know what it would be."
Next morning Reuben stands at the factory gate passing out flyers: "Good morning... I'm from the Textile Workers' Union of America... Read this when you have a chance... Good morning..." Norma scans one of the flyers and then tells Reuben: "There's too many big words in there. If I don't understand it, they ain't gonna understand it." She hands him back the flyer and disappears into the factory.
Once inside the plant Norma is called to the office, where the floor manager (Lonny Chapman) tells her: "Norma, you got the biggest mouth in this mill. Give us longer breaks, give us more smoking time, give us a Kotex machine..." "Do it and I'll shut up," she replies. "Well, we're going to do better than that," the manager announces. "We figure the only way to close that mouth is to hand you a promotion. You are rising in the world, honey." Norma agrees to be promoted to be a spot-checker. She will time the performance of her fellow workers with a stop watch, and report any operatives whose speed is not up to snuff. Although she knows that this will not endear her to her colleagues, she accepts the position because of the significantly higher pay.
Her promotion fails to work out for her. Her colleagues deeply resent what she does; they know that the objective of the timing is the weeding out of workers who cannot keep up with the demanding pace--and eventually a general speed-up. Norma's father, who is not in good health, particularly resents being pushed by his daughter. The situation eventually gets so bad that Norma's colleagues stop talking to her. Even her friends begin to snub her. An old friend of the family, when confronted by her, calls her a "fink." Norma gets the message and resigns her spot-checker post. After that she is graciously welcomed back by her friends.
Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), a young divorced father, starts dating Norma, and soon proposes marriage to her--generously and with charm. He explains to her how a common household for their three kids may work out for all of them. Norma is moved by his warm sincerity. "It's been a long time between offers," she says. And after a pause: "Well, kiss me. And, if that's all right, the rest'll be." They are married by the Justice of the Peace, who afterwards offers the couple and the witnesses a glass of his home-made wine. Knowing, or suspecting, Norma's enormous energy and enterprising spirit, Sonny offers his ceremonial toast: "To my wife, Norma Rae. I just hope that I can keep up with her."
A first union meeting is called by Reuben at a poor black Baptist church. Not many workers show up, and those that have come are mostly black. Although the work force at the mill is desegregated, latent racism still exists in the community. Reuben delivers a moving and rousing speech, however, and Norma, as well as her friend Bonnie Mae (Gail Strickland), is deeply impressed. The main points of Reuben's presentation are labor unity, regardless of race or ethnicity, and the necessity to actively strive for one's rights. "It comes from the Bible: According to the tribes of your fathers, ye shall inherit. It comes from Reuben Warshovsky: Not unless you make it happen." "You preach pretty good," Norma tells Reuben after the meeting. "When are you going to join up?" the organizer replies. Norma is hesitant: "Who's got the time? I got my hands full as is."
Next day Norma sees Reuben in action as he demands from the managers to be shown the bulletin boards where union notices are put up. The managers and boss men try to block him, but Reuben reminds them: "The federal government of the United States, brothers, in Federal Court Order Number 7778, states the following: The union has the right to inspect every bulletin board in the mills at least once a week, to verify in person that its notices are not being stripped off." Unwillingly the managers bring Reuben to the boards, and he chides them for deliberately hanging the notes too high, or blocking access altogether by piling up boxes in front of them: "Why do you guys try this horseshit? Now I got to go to the phone and call my lawyers and get'em on your ass. It's childish." Reluctantly the managers lower the notes and clear the access. Reuben uses his visit to address several of the workers. The workers are timid, but they get a taste of what it is like to enforce rights against a hostile management. Norma observes Reuben from afar, and it is at this time that she makes up her mind to join the union.
Next day Norma comes to Reuben's make-shift office at the motel and asks whether she could get fired if she joined the Textile Workers' Union of America. "No way," Reuben assures her. "You can wear a union button as big as a frisbee when you go to work. You can talk union to any mill hand who wants to listen, as long as it’s during a break. You can take union pamphlets to the mill and pass'em along--and there is not a godamn thing they can do to touch you." Norma says that she had never even joined the Girl Scouts, but that she will sign up. "You' re the fish I wanted to hook," a happy Reuben tells her, and she is pleasedas well. Together they talk about strategy. From now on it is Norma who is the center of the organizing drive.
At the mill Norma tries to talk her fellow-workers into signing up, and into wearing TWUA buttons. She also tries to convince the pastor of her church to let workers use their building for union meetings, as that white church has roomier facilities than the black Baptist congregation. The pastor (Vernon Weddle) refuses, and Norma quits the church of which she has been a member since her childhood. "We'll miss your voice in the choir, Norma," the Pastor says smugly. "You'll hear it raised up somewhere else," she replies. She calls the next union meeting at her home, although her husband Sonny protests. Sonny is worried about what the neighbors will think when "a bunch of black men" show up at their place. "I never had any trouble with the black men," Norma tells him. "Only trouble I ever had in my life was with white men."
At the next meeting it is the workers who talk, not Reuben. Reuben encourages them to voice their grievances and concerns. Both black and white, as well as male and female, mill hands talk about their feelings. "A man's work should be a man's work--not a term in jail," one of the black workers says. Others complain of unhealthy working conditions, ungenerous policies concerning rests, and further details that turn the days of work into an endless drudgery. After the meeting Reuben is very discouraged, however. Only seventeen out of eight hundred employees had come. "We’ve got to get this thing moving," he says. "It’s bogging down on me."
Norma says that things take time in the South; Henleyville is not New York City. She suggests that they buy a jug of corn whiskey and conduct a sign-up campaign in the countryside around town. The excursion ends with Reuben falling into a cow pie, and the two agitators end up at an overgrown creek, washing up and taking a swim. Reuben tells Norma about life in New York City, and she surmises that by now he has become very homesick. She is fascinated by his enthusiasm about opera, exotic restaurants, and other amenities of big city life. She is strongly attracted to him, and their swimming in the nude might easily have led to further involvements. They do not follow up any such impulses, however. Their relation is one of being comrades in the struggle for a worthy cause.
Norma often stays up late to work through her long list of necessary solicitation calls. Her organizing attempts are frustrating, and the results are far from encouraging. Her marriage suffers. Sonny complains bitterly about her neglect of what he considers her marital duties. It is only his great love for her that her occasional fights end in tender reconciliations. The managers and boss men at the mill resent Norma's organizing activities, and they nastily harass her whenever they get a chance. The few workers who sign up with the union do a lot of volunteer work at Reuben's make-shift office, and even there frictions develop because of the many difficulties everyone has to contend with. On top of all this Norma's father dies of a heart attack--clearly a case of over-work at the mill.
The management of O. P. Henley finally decides to fight the union drive in earnest. As one worker explains to Reuben: "They put us on a stretch-out. Put us on a three-day week. Twice as much work and half the pay. On account of you." The punishment has the intended effect: The workers do not come to the union meetings anymore. Most of them have no financial reserves; they cannot afford to lose any income. Many direct their rage not against the company, but against Reuben and the union: "Go sell your union someplace else." Doors are slammed in Reuben's face.
The nascent local does not give up, however. Volunteers keep working long hours at the make-shift office. But now trouble arrives from a different direction: Two union bosses come from the central office to talk to Reuben about Norma. Norma has a questionable reputation in the community: "This lady has had an illegitimate child. She's slept around. She takes naps on your bed late at night." This kind of person, the two men suggest, can only hurt the union drive: "The company wants us to look bad. They are going to use everything they can to make us look bad. You know, these mill hands go to church every Sunday, and she's talking union to them."
Although the consideration may not be entirely unreasonable, Reuben is outraged: "Are we in the character assassination business, or are we in the union business? All of a sudden, after I have put in an eighteen-hour day, I got the legion of decency on my hands. She's been breaking her ass for this organization. She doesn't see her kids, and she doesn't have the time to take a bath! What the fuck do I care if she's got round heels? Is this the Catholic Church? ... Are we going to canonize her?" Reuben is animated and convincing enough to send the two envoys home.
The company launches a further initiative to destroy the union drive--a dirty trick campaign. They mobilize the latent racism of white workers by putting a "warning" letter on the bulletin board. The matter comes to Norma's attention when white workers physically attack a black colleague in a backyard of the mill. After the incident Norma explains to Reuben: "They put up a letter. They’re telling the whites that the blacks are gonna run the union, take it over and push 'em around..." She is alarmed, but Reuben sees an opportunity: "I like it when those pricks get mean. We can take legal action. Get me the letter!"
Since the boss men are watching her, Norma cannot simply take the letter. She tries to memorize it, but that proves too difficult for her. She finally decides to copy it, even though she runs the risk of getting fired. The managers know that they cannot physically prevent her from copying the letter, but they order her off the premises when she starts writing. Norma refuses to go. Even the Pinkerton guard is helpless in view of her furious resistance. While everybody is waiting for the Sheriff to take her away, Norma finishes her copying, and then writes "Union" on a card board. She climbs on a table and flashes the sign to all the mill hands. The workers slowly take courage: One by one they turn off their machines, until finally the production of the entire mill comes to a halt. When the Sheriff finally takes Norma away, she is going in triumph: The TWUA has has taken root at O. P. Henley's Textile Mill.
Outside, however, a patrol car is waiting, and Norma, kicking and screaming, is booked into jail. This encounter with the law is a first in her life, and she feels utterly soiled and humiliated by it. After Reuben bails her out, she goes home and wakes the three children. She wants to explain herself to them before they hear all the stories about her that will soon circulate all over town. She tells them that she loves them, even though they do not have the same father, and she says that she has become a jailbird because she was fighting for what is right--a life that is better than her own. "If you go into the mill, I want life to be better for you than it is for me; that's why I joined up with the union and got fired for it."
Sonny is unhappy because the one phone call that Norma could make from prison went to Reuben, not to him. Reuben explains that the reason was the fact that he could raise bail. But Sonny's doubts run deeper: "You come in here, you mix her up, you turn her head all around. She's all changed. I didn't want her to be a front-runner--I didn't want that. What's gonna happen to us now?" "She stood up on a table," Reuben replies. "She's a free woman. Maybe you can live with it--maybe you can't."
Subdued and deeply in love Sonny approaches Norma and asks in a soft voice: "Did you ever sleep with him?" "No," Norma says. "But he's in my head." "I’ll see you through getting tired, getting sick, getting old," Sonny tells her. "I’ll see you through anything that comes up.’Cause there's nobody else in my head. Just you." Norma looks at him thankfully and deeply moved, They lie down together, reconciled.
There is a vote at the mill. The media are present, and the entire workforce watches the tabulation. When all votes are counted, 373 turn out to be against the union, and 427 for it. Outside the factory gate Norma and Reuben listen to the applause and the jubilation. Reuben's small car, packed to the rafters with filing cases and other office equipment, is ready for his trip back to New York. The two have deep feelings as they say good-bye, and they exchange words that come close to being declarations of love. But they part by just shaking hands. "They are comrades-in-arms," says the script. "They are battle-weary, they are triumphant. Whatever else they might be remains unspoken."
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