by Jackie Wolf
Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 8, 24, 37
North Americans as a group have a notoriously short memory. From the events of the last decade seem to have disappeared from our collective consciousness. Its little wonder that in 1980, with only 20% of the U.S. work force organized, unionism and the struggle to organize workers means little to the average American.
Few remember the strikes in the early part of this century as workers struggled together to demand their right to bargain collectively over wages and working conditions. Fewer still remember the now almost unimaginable fury unleashed on workers by the companies they were trying to bargain with. Not many know that even now, in a different form, the most lengthy battle in U.S. labor history is taking place in the South where the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) has been trying to organize the J.P. Stevens textile mills for 17 years.
Several films have been made about that organizing drive. TESTIMONY: JUSTICE V. J.P. STEVENS was made by the ACTWU, documenting their long effort. NORMA RAE, a big-budget Hollywood film, is a fictionalized account of the organizing. CRYSTAL LEE JORDAN is a short, modest film about a woman who led the only successful organizing drive at a J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. A fourth film, made in 1964, THE INHERITANCE, is a general history of labor in the U.S. with emphasis on the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. It touches on current labor struggles in the South.
A little history is necessary to understand the films and the motivation of organizers at J.P. Stevens, indeed of organizers anywhere, anytime. J.P. Stevens & Co., Inc. is the second largest corporation in the textile industry. In the last 30 years it has bought up dozens of smaller firms and closed all its unionized plants in the North. 63 out of 83 plants are in North and South Carolina. Stevens employs 44,100 people, none of them covered by a union contract.
Stevens' employees work under serious health and safety violations. According to the North Carolina Department of Labor, cotton dust levels in the Stevens Roanoke Rapids plant are 12 times greater than the permissible level under the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) standard. At that level, one third of all workers are likely to develop the severely disabling respiratory disease doctors call byssinosis and workers refer to as brown lung.
Noise is another serious problem at J.P. Stevens. Noise levels in some departments are more than 20 times as loud as the permissible level under OSHA.
Given unhealthy, unsafe working conditions and a documented history of overwhelming discrimination in employment practices against Blacks and women, the Textile Workers Union of America was able to bring their organizing drive to an eager work force at Stevens 17 years ago. It soon became apparent that the drive was to be hugely difficult. In fact, one of the principal reasons the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Textile Workers Union merged in June 1976 was to have more strength to fight Stevens.
To say they needed strength is a laughable understatement. The organizing drive was met with the most massive National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) violations in the Act's history. The NLRA states,
Between 1963 and the present, 121 cases involving illegal activity by Stevens were processed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In each of the 121 cases, Stevens was found guilty of NLRA violations. In one of its most blatant violations of the Act, after the NLRB ruled that in Statesboro, Georgia, intimidation of workers was so heavy that the company must recognize the union because no fair union election could be held, J.P. Stevens simply closed the plant rather than bargain with the union. Even the federal courts, usually staid in these matters, stated Stevens has
TESTIMONY: JUSTICE V. J.P. STEVENS is a film made by the ACTWU to let the public know the details of their long battle. It would seem, logically enough, that such a fight would be the stuff exciting, stimulating and moving films are made of, particularly when told by the union. Not so. The film is, for the most part, a series of interviews with Stevens' workers and John Colt Culbertson, a union labor lawyer. Culbertson points out the enormous control Stevens has over the political and social life of the communities in which it is located simply because of the sheer number of people it employs and the amount of property it owns. Hearing Culbertson describe J.P. Stevens' power over the lifestyles and attitudes of a community is not enough. We need to see - to see the health-destroying work as an integral part of workers' lives. Only through an understanding of how work affects all aspects of their lives can we understand the need to change the quality of work they perform. The film, ostensibly about union organizing, never even hints at what union organizing is all about.
The majority of the film allows workers to relate their experiences at Stevens. They are horrifying. One worker describes what it's like to breathe cotton dust all day and spit up wads of cotton. An 18-year-old woman, given no instruction on how to operate her machine, holds up her hand, minus two fingers. That kind of material is so strong it's bound to work, but not nearly as clearly or powerfully as it could. Straight-faced interviews in offices hardly give the viewer the sense of anger and urgency they should get from the film or the sense of people working together to better their lives. The oft-repeated charge that unions are bureaucracies that have lost touch with the rank-and-file is subtly and, in this case, unfairly enhanced by the locale of the interviews. The J.P. Stevens organizing drive has touched the core of workers' lives and their stories deserve surroundings that display those lives.
The film also misses a perfect opportunity to criticize an enemy of labor, the NLRB - inexcusable for a film made by a union. Culbertson points out, "The law is not designed to handle situations like Stevens." He makes Stevens' lawbreaking seem like a one-in-a-million situation. Any union organizer knows that is nonsense. While Stevens' labor law violations have been massive, their sheer number is the only thing that makes them unusual. Labor law is constructed in such a way that it virtually begs employers to break it. Just the label "unfair labor practice" conjures up visions of a remotely impolite adversary, no worse. Punishment for labor law violations usually takes the form of nominal fines, far less than it would cost the company to pay union wages and benefits. It is the workers who have broken no laws who usually suffer when they are illegally fired exercising their legal right to organize. It is only after years of litigation, and no income, that the lawbreaking company must reinstate them with the back pay the company can easily afford. But the damage has been done. The company has gotten the most vocal workers out of the plant during the critical period of time when workers are most ready to endure the hardships organizing takes.
The ACTWU, the union that has suffered most from American labor law weighted heavily toward management, fools the viewer into thinking that Stevens is its primary enemy. Can a union that won an election at a J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. in 1974 and has yet to win a contract really believe that? Are they really so blind as to not see the role the law plays in the affair? It seems that unions have so little sense of history that they fail to see that though the NLRA was hailed as a great victory for working people when Congress passed it in 1935, it has become a tool of industrial capital. The Supreme Court stated in 1975 in Emporium Capwell v. NLRB that workers were given the right to organize under the NLRA "not for their own sake but as an instrument of the national labor policy of minimizing industrial strife."
Even as a tool to involve the viewer directly the film fails. Culbertson points out that Stevens is "so disrespectful of any power but their own" the only alternative Stevens' workers and the union have is to call for a consumer boycott of Stevens' products. But the film doesn't point out that J.P. Stevens markets its products under many different names. If viewers wish to honor the boycott, but simply look for a J.P. Stevens label, they are likely to unwittingly buy a product labeled with one of the seventeen other names Stevens uses.*
A much better film is Martin Ritt's NORMA RAE, a thinly disguised version of the J.P. Stevens story set in a small southern town where most of the town's residents work at the fictional O.P. Henley Mill.
In the opening scene, Norma Rae (Sally Field) is on her lunch break at work. She turns to speak to her mother sitting beside her and her mother can't hear a word she is saying. Norma Rae frantically takes her mother by the hand and they go running through the plant to the company doctor.
"Now Norma Rae," the doctor tells her in a patronizing tone, "you know this happens. It's only temporary."
"Well, it doesn't happen to my mama," Field shouts slowly and deliberately.
Though we heard the work-related illnesses in TESTIMONY, temporary hearing loss from the din of the machinery among them, there is more anger, anguish and promise of action in that single statement than in all of TESTIMONY. Not only is the defiance there, but we see men and women at work in the unbearably noisy plant. We see how the work permeates their lives.
We see workers discussing their work with the union organizer, Ruben Warshawsky (Ron Liebman) in a small group, reminiscent of a similar scene in TESTIMONY. But here the stories of brown lung and of being put on a 3-day workweek with twice as much work for half the pay have more meaning. Not only because we know the characters, but because their exchange of ideas and work-related stories are part of the organizing process unfolding before us.
Though NORMA RAE obviously focuses on the development and growth of the character played by Field, it also emphasizes the group effort of an organizing drive. There is one scene in the movie where Norma Rae is fired for trying to copy down a company notice posted on a bulletin board. Refusing to leave the plant, she rushes to her work site, writes "UNION" on a scrap of cardboard, and stands on a table holding the sign aloft. In a three-minute sequence, under the exasperated glare of company supervisors, Norma Rae's coworkers, one by one, turn off their machinery and stand there defiantly. The power of that scene brings tears to the eyes of any viewer who has ever been abused by his or her work. The weakness of the scene is that it ends there. Norma Rae is carted off to jail and what transpires afterward at the O.P. Henley Mill is never known.
Perhaps Ritt's failure to describe subsequent events at the mill was deliberate. Very possibly the workers, lacking leadership and support at that point, did nothing more. Few unions are willing to support workers who wildcat during an organizing drive no matter how justified or necessary the action. In fact, the reluctance of union bureaucrats to get involved in controversy or even defend their most loyal supporters is shown when business-suited union officials burst in one Ruben late one night. "This is a small southern Baptist town. You've got to keep your nose very clean," they tell him prior to requesting he oust Norma Rae from the union drive because she has a reputation, not to mention an "illegitimate" child.
"What are we, the Legion of Decency? … Do [our supporters] have to qualify as candidates for canonization?" Ruben asks before throwing the union officials from his room.
The movie works hard to be an absorbing study of contemporary union organizing. That's no small feat. Union organizing is pretty mundane these days. It is largely a matter of getting workers to sign union authorization cards and seeing that the provisions of the NLRA are met. The power that was in workers' hands many decades ago is now channeled through strict labor regulations.
To the movie's credit, a valiant effort is made to get across some of the silly, tedious, NLRA-imposed aspects of modern organizing techniques. At one point, Ruben tries to get into the plant to check the company bulletin boards, an act he is legally entitled to perform in order to make sure company representatives have been posting his notices. This is one of the few displays of power the NLRA allows unions to demonstrate. When company representatives balk at his request he tells them, "Come on, we've already got six of you boss men in civil contempt."
"Hell," one supervisor responds, "we plaster the toilets with them things." Indeed they do. The union's opportunities for shows of strength are largely empty and NLRB slaps-on-the-wrist, for company violations are just that.
All this sets the scene for one of the movie's most puzzling omissions. When the company representatives reluctantly let Ruben into the mill he discovers, one would think not to anyone's amazement, that the union's notices are not clearly displayed on the bulletin boards. The bitter battle between the company and the union is shown only through the bulletin board incident, Norma Rae's firing, and management's attempt to stir up racism in the plant. The documented history of the tactics J.P. Stevens has utilized in reality encompasses the use of far more power than this fictionalized account even begins to hint at.
The films ending leaves the uninitiated viewer with an unrealistic portrayal of what union organizing is all about. After the union wins the election and Norma Rae and Ruben listen to the cheers of workers inside the mill, they bid each other a touching goodbye and Ruben rides off into the sunset, a job well done. Hah! Optimistically, 40% of the battle has been won. A union contract is still to be negotiated. To have the union organizer disappear after an election is ridiculous.
To be an inspirational organizing tool does NORMA RAE have to falsify the difficulties of organizing? Union organizers learned decades ago that workers' anger against injustice is a requisite to organizing. What's wrong with being honest about the contemporary state of organizing and the effect the law has had on a union's chances of winning an election and a contract? The unfairness of it all can be just as inspirational, even more so, than Ritt's glowingly positive, false conclusion to NORMA RAE.
According to director Ritt, NORMA RAE is a "fictionalized composite of several women who became militantly involved in trying to unionize southern textile mills." The fiction label is doubtful.
NORMA RAE was originally intended to relate the experiences of Crystal Lee Jordan, a worker at the J.P. Stevens mill in Roanoke Rapids, and Eli Zivkovich, a labor organizer. NORMA RAE's producers optioned for screen rights to the book Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance by Henry Liebermann. When Jordan refused to sign legal releases, according to the movie's producers, major changes were made in the screenplay.
The changes couldn't have been major. The similarities between Crystal Lee and Norma Rae's lives are made clear in a short, modest, unmoving film vaguely outlining Jordan's union organizing experiences entitled CRYSTAL LEE JORDAN.
In one of NORMA RAE's most powerful scenes, Norma Rae tells her three children who their fathers were to strengthen them against any harassment they might receive because of her union activities. In her biographical film Jordan describes the same experience. She elaborates, as it was elaborated in NORMA RAE, that, in an effort to undermine the union, company sympathizers would spread the rumor "there are a bunch of whores out there [campaigning] for the union."
As does NORMA RAE, CRYSTAL LEE JORDAN focuses on the growth, acceptance and eventual support of the main character's husband. Says Jordan's husband, "She's not afraid of anybody - me or the company. I'm proud of her." Norma Rae's husband (Beau Bridges) comes to the same conclusion.
CRYSTAL LEE JORDAN doesn't have much else to say. The film is similar in style to TESTIMONY. Jordan is interviewed at home, isolated from her work and organizing efforts. It is not a film for those who want even a glimpse of labor history. No historical background either of union organizing in general or of the J.P. Stevens struggle in particular is related in the film.
One would never guess from the film that Jordan was instrumental in the longest battle in labor history. About the most revolutionary act mentioned by Jordan in the film, with ridiculous emphasis, is that her husband did the dishes while she was organizing. Who cares, particularly since Jordan's work during that time is never discussed?
The film is all the more disappointing if the viewer has read Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance. The book is rich in its detailed history of the organizing drive, the region the J.P. Stevens plants are located in, and the attitudes of its workers. If the film had a fraction of the information the book related, it would have been worthwhile. Hopefully, a better film will be the soon-to-be-made sequel to NORMA RAE by documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple. Jordan has control over that film's script, which, she has said, will make the new film truer to the spirit of the union's struggle than either NORMA RAE or CRYSTAL LEE JORDAN.
These films have in common a "let's make things better for the next generation" theme, which has been voiced, of course, not only by union men and women but by members of every generation throughout history. "I'd kill a man if he treated my children the way I've been treated," says a worker in TESTIMONY. "If you go into the mill I want things to be better for you than it is for me," Norma Rae tells her children. While a group of women sing "We Shall Not Be Moved," Jordan says, "We are fighting for our children."
An excellent film, THE INHERITANCE, an overview of labor history in America with emphasis on the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, also begins with that theme. "In the old country I was treated like an animal," says one man as the viewer is shown stills of immigrants being processed at Ellis Island. "Before God, I swear my children won't live as I have lived.
What follows is a remarkable history of American labor before the NLRA and NLRB intervened, done in song and slides.
"Two million children in the mills and mines," says the narrator as the viewer looks at stills of children working long before the passage of child labor laws. "Six million adults unemployed. Why hire an adult for $1 if you can get a kid for a dime?"
Statistics of the era tell it best of all. At the time, it was estimated a family of four needed to earn $900 a year to survive. The average family in the United States earned $400.
Slides, statements and songs give the viewer a real feeling for the whys and hows of organizing. "This is golden America where millionaires grow on trees like little apples," says a voice as we view pictures of America's wealthy at the turn of the century.
"1905," says another voice, "we find it difficult to convey conditions in new immigrant neighborhoods," as we are shown slides of the vastly more predominant United States.
The film reminds us that workers' organizing themselves is one of the oldest, strongest aspects of American history. Philadelphia printers formed a union before Washington was president.
The film is sprinkled with famous figures of labor history from Charles Lazinskas, who was killed during the Hart, Shaffner and Marx walkout which eventually led to the formation of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers by militant rank and file, to Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia, who defended workers who wanted to organize against vicious red-baiting and anti-union legislation. Viewers are reminded again and again of tales which have since become legend, including Shaffner's famous quote when he went to view working conditions at his Hart, Shaffner and Marx plant during the four-month walkout: "I'm not surprised they're out on strike, he said, "I'm only surprised they waited so long to strike."
After scenes of the Palmer raids (when 3000 immigrants who were mostly union activists had their homes ransacked without search warrants and were arrested and held without charge for three months) and seemingly unending strikes, beatings and murders by police, we are reminded of what it was all about. Minimum wages and maximum hours were made law. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers made low cost cooperative housing available to its members and set up its own bank where workers could get loans. Industry wide organizing brought justice and organization out of exploitation and chaos.
"Whoever thought," says the narrator, "this trade [clothing and textiles] would have three weeks' paid vacation, a pension, union hospitalization … a man can't be fired for no reason?" And, the film reminds us, the ACTWU is organizing today in the South, where workers are once again having their activities monitored, being chased away from plants and beaten.
THE INHERITANCE is much more powerful than NORMA RAE because its history is accurate. Ritt's version of union struggle is softened in spite of the fact that so many of the tactics of old are used by J.P. Stevens today. Just last year, in Milligeville, Alabama, the site of another J.P. Stevens organizing drive, spying on union activists by former CIA agents, the town's mayor and police, and Holiday Inn management where organizers were living during the drive, was documented by ACTWU. One can only mourn the fact that Ritt didn't use history in the same way the makers of THE INHERITANCE did to make a stronger film.
THE INHERITANCE is particularly excellent because it reminds us that it was the militant rank and file who were historically responsible for the creation of our strongest unions - in the case of THE INHERITANCE, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. Today we have the glimmer of a new militant rank and file who will destroy the myth of white men, and only white men, battling for their rights as workers. Most union organizers admit you can predict the outcome of a union election by the race and gender of the voters. The more Blacks and women in the collective bargaining unit, the better the union's chances of winning the election. But we have a long way to go before workers recognize that fact.
Unions denied it for years. One reason union membership has dwindled is that unions refused to take advantage of two of the most important political movements of our times, the civil rights and women's movements, by organizing Black and women workers. I suppose its a small victory and an eye-opener that Hollywood can now make a popular film about a woman leading an organizing drive, but even more revealing is the omission of Black workers as potential union leaders. That, apparently, is still unacceptable to Hollywood.
Contemporary films about labor should be judged primarily by how useful they are as organizing tools. Given the small number of American workers who belong to a union, its obvious we have lost sight of the importance of collective bargaining. I recently heard an American union leader describe a conversation she had with a European: "Your government legitimizes you but our workers legitimize us. American workers don't know they're workers."
Powerful, true labor films are vital as educational tools. Let's hope filmmakers don't stop trying.
The ACTWU has called for a boycott of the following J.P. Stevens products: sheets and pillowcases: Utica, Tastemaker, Fine Arts, Meadowbrook; towels: Tastemaker, Utica/Fine Arts, Snoopy; blankets and carpets: Utica, Gulistan, Forstmann; designer labels: Dinah Shore, Suzanne Pleshette, Yves St. Laurent, Angelo Donghia, Ava Bergmann, Cacharel, Hardy Amies.