Money  /  Film Review

Unspooling Norma Rae

The story of Norma Rae, based on the union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton.

Sutton was one of many who worked to unionize one of the seven mills in her hometown of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, run by J. P. Stevens, a notorious offender before the National Labor Relations Board. Stevens’s mills had entangled Sutton’s family, as they did many others. When an irate Norma Rae complains of her mother’s hearing loss due to the thundering machines, she’s told to get another job. She counters: “What other job in this town?!” Sutton’s parents were both mill workers, and she had witnessed its impact on their minds and bodies, from alcoholism to brown lung, a disorder in which minute cotton fibers lodge in the chest and progressively strangle breath. In high school, she sought escape by enrolling in shorthand classes, which would place her in a quieter, cleaner, more lucrative office, but felt too exhausted after school and her night shift at the mill to study. She was then only seventeen, and her family needed the money. She dropped the classes.

By working at a hosiery mill in Hickory, Mawmaw paid her way through business college, where she did learn shorthand, invaluable in her lifelong career as a secretary. Such a slim line separates lack and luck, that sliver of circumstance that shakes us free of inherited patterns. But Mawmaw was also seeking escape. She was raised on a farm where her five-person family grew cotton, which paid back their rent and afforded them clothes, books, shoes, and not much else; they grew most of their food but craved sandwiches of thick tomatoes on pillowy, store-bought white bread—the lunch of rich folks’ children. For the many Southerners who still worked the land, the proliferating mills provided opportunities for better living conditions and higher pay. If cotton was in their hair, anyway, better to not have dirt caking their boots, too.

After the devastations of the Civil War, most textile mills were located in the more industrialized North and only moved south to chase lower wages, given the region’s laxer labor laws. Southern mill workers in the twentieth century were often paid only half of what their equivalents up north had made. But it’s important to understand that Southerners felt they were gaining jobs, ones more lucrative than farmwork, making the wages at first feel sufficient even if they were comparatively scant. Meanwhile textile companies paid off politicians, who fomented anti-union sentiment through the legislature and cannily boasted about bringing jobs to the community, framing unions—which sought to improve conditions—as an enemy to the South’s competitiveness in the national labor market. Yet many of these corporations were still headquartered in the North, including Stevens’s, which was based in Massachusetts and New Jersey, far from where laborers’ grievances could be heard.