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Here are some words you are unlikely to hear in any of the movie clips shown during the Academy Awards this year:
Ladies and gentlemen, the textile industry, in which you are spending your lives and your substance…is the only industry in the whole length and breadth of these United States of America that is not unionized. Therefore, they are free to exploit you, to lie to you, to cheat you and to take away from you what is rightfully yours–your health, a decent wage, a fit place to work.
“Unionized” isn’t a word you hear in many American movies. “A decent wage,” now there’s a phrase that doesn’t crop up too often. As for the evocative “your lives and your substance,” poetic descriptions of the human condition aren’t generally found in contemporary entertainment.
This speech is from Martin Ritt’s classic 1979 film Norma Rae, delivered in an impassioned sermon by Ron Leibman in the role of an organizer for the Textile Workers Union of America, a real union at the time and a predecessor to the current trade union UNITE HERE. Norma Rae is an aberration in recent Hollywood history. The movie portrays a realistic union-organizing campaign and the fierce corporate response at the fictional O.P. Henley textile mill in the fictional town of Henleyville. As everyone knew at the time, the mill and the town were unambiguous stand-ins for J.P. Stevens and its sixteen-year war against union organizers in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, and the movie accurately depicted the state of American labor in 1979.
The situation has not improved much since. The only remaining Stevens factory in the United States (owned by its successor company, Westpoint Home) is a unionized blanket mill in Maine. In other industries, union organizers are battling adversaries as unyielding as any in the days of Norma Rae. According to the labor advocacy group American Rights at Work, last year more than 23,000 Americans were fired or penalized for legal union activity.
On a human level, Norma Rae is the story of one woman, played by Sally Field, who finds redemption risking her life for economic justice, and of factory workers demanding to be treated as more than slaves. In the realm of the political, it is virtually the only American movie of the modern era to deal substantially with any of these subjects. Even today it remains iconic–a major studio movie about the lives of working people with a profound and, for its time, disturbing political message: The little guy may have a prayer of getting social justice, but he’ll have to fight desperately to get it. Try to think of a contemporary American film with a similar message or a political statement anywhere near that blunt. The closest thing to a message in this year’s crop of Oscar nominees for Best Picture can be found in Babel, which poses the rather mild question, Why can’t we all just get along?