Get Lost Norma Rae
When people think of union organizing in the south, the iconic movie image comes to mind of a sweaty, aggravated Sally Field as “Norma Rae,” standing on a work table, holding a piece of cardboard above her head with ‘Union” scrawled across it.
Upon her death a few years ago, the New York Times wrote, “Ms. Sutton (then Crystal Lee Jordan) was a 33-year-old mother of three earning $2.65 an hour folding towels at the J. P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., when she took her stand.” The year was 1973.
Lawyers wouldn’t let Ms. Sutton’s name be used in the 1979 movie for which Ms. Field won the Oscar for best actress, a Golden Globe and the best-actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, all in 1980.
There will be no movies made of last week’s union vote at the Canton, Mississippi Nissan assembly plant. Representatives of Nissan Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers union said late Friday that 2,244 workers, or 62 percent, voted against the UAW, while only 1,307, or 38 percent, favored the union. This was the first union vote at a Mississippi plant.
This latest defeat, writes Jeff Amy for the Associated Press, adds “to decades of futility by United Auto Workers organizers at foreign-owned auto plants in the American South.”
Mr. Amy explains, “The UAW's lack of influence among southern auto workers has reduced its bargaining power when Detroit automakers lose market share and close plants. After pouring resources into the organizing drive at Nissan, this loss could leave UAW leaders with tough decisions.”
Of course the UAW president Dennis Williams sees it differently, “The result of the election was a setback for these workers, the UAW and working Americans everywhere, but in no way should it be considered a defeat.”
I spent six years in the south and saw plenty of spooky, shuttered textile mills, similar to the one where Crystal Lee Sutton worked. I also noticed huge complexes open and employing people--the car makers.
For instance, in Alabama last year Alabama automakers (Mercedes, Honda and Hyundai) produced more than one million cars and light trucks, a record for annual production. Toyota, Honda and Hyundai also produced nearly 1.7 million engines in 2016.
"They know we didn't need it," said Nissan worker Kim Barber. "They know we didn't need outside interference coming in our plant." A 2015 study by the Center for Automotive Research found that Nissan paid an average of $44 an hour in pay and benefits, plus Nissan has given pay raises since then.
“Norma Rae” was filmed a few miles down the road from the Ludwig Mises Institute in the neighboring town of Opelika. It was the Golden Cherry Motel where Norma strategized with union organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Rob Leibman).
It seems silly today but, “Of course, there was much excitement when (Burt) Reynolds visited Field, something he did a few times during the filming,” wrote Guy Rhodes. “People around Opelika were allowed to watch some of the scenes being filmed—as long as they stayed out of the way. They were usually hoping to catch a glimpse of Reynolds if he showed up.”
Ironically, Opelika is home to dozens of automaker subcontractors with the Hyundai plant located an hour west in Montgomery and the Kia plant an hour east just over the state line in Georgia.
Every election the UAW loses is considered a fake election and the voting wasn’t even complete and the union “filed seven new charges with the National Labor Relations Board just before polls closed Friday alleging that Nissan had broken federal labor laws during the campaign,” Mr. Amy writes.
However, there is no Norma Rae and Amy points out, “A decision on the new charges could be months or years away.”
"They have rejected the UAW and chosen to self-represent, continuing the direct relationship they enjoy with the company,"Nissan’s spokeswoman Parul Bajaj.
“Self-represent,” now that would make a great sign.