DiscoverLaw on FilmNorma Rae (Guest: Fred B. Jacob) (episode 18)
Norma Rae (Guest: Fred B. Jacob) (episode 18)

Norma Rae (Guest: Fred B. Jacob) (episode 18)

Update: 2024-01-31


Norma Rae (1979) describes the struggle of Norma Rae Webster (Sally Field), a factory worker with limited education, to unionize a textile mill in North Carolina. The film was directed by Martin Ritt from a screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., and is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton (as told in the 1975 book Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann). Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman), a union organizer from New York City, persuades Norma to help him organize a union. But Norma and Reuben must overcome a series of obstacles, including pressure and harassment from management as well as internal divisions among the textile workers. Norma, moreover, must navigate issues in her personal life, including with her new husband Sonny (Beau Bridges), who resents Norma’s growing commitment to the union. Ultimately, Norma succeeds as the workers vote to unionize. The film offers a snapshot of the labor movement on the cusp of the Reagan era in American and features a memorable, Oscar-winning performance by Sally Field in the title role. My guest is Fred B. Jacob, Solicitor of the National Labor Relations Board and labor law professor at George Washington University Law School. Fred’s views on this podcast are solely his own and not those of the National Labor Relations Board or the U.S. Government.


0:00         Introduction
3:33         An inflection point in U.S. labor history
6:40         Unionizing the textile industry
13:29       The clash between culture and economics
14:03       Organizing a workplace
21:08       How unions are protected
24:17       A snapshot of the middle of the J.P. Stevens campaign
27:08       How the law operates in Norma Rae
28:38       Management’s pressure tactics
31:09       Why you need a “Norma Rae” when trying to organize people
32:46       The film’s iconic moment of worker power
35:30       Violence against the labor movement
40:17       Management’s exploitation of racial divisions
49:58       How the union helps empower Norma
53:57       What happened next at the factory
59:30       Crystal Lee Sutton: The real Norma Rae
1:01:36   Unions today
1:05:14   How the National Labor Relations Act helps people to be brave
1:08:51   Other great labor movies

Further reading:

Allan, Angela, “40 Years Ago, ‘Norma Rae’  Understood How Corporations Weaponized Race,” The Atlantic (Mar. 2, 2019)

Dray, Philip, There is Power in a Union (2011)

Dubofsky, Melvyn & McCartin, Joseph A., Labor in America: A History (9th ed. 2017)

Fry, Naomi, “The Ongoing Relevance of ‘Norma Rae,’” New Yorker (Aug. 4. 2020)

Kazek, Kelly, “When Hollywood came to Alabama to film 'Norma Rae,'” (May 3, 2019)

Leifermann, Henry P., Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance (1975)

Law on Film is created and produced by Jonathan Hafetz. Jonathan is a professor at Seton Hall Law School. He has written many books and articles about the law. He has litigated important cases to protect civil liberties and human rights while working at the ACLU and other organizations. Jonathan is a huge film buff and has been watching, studying, and talking about movies for as long as he can remember.
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Norma Rae (Guest: Fred B. Jacob) (episode 18)

Norma Rae (Guest: Fred B. Jacob) (episode 18)

Jonathan Hafetz