The movie opens to the sweet sound of Jennifer Warnes voice singing the Oscar-winning song “It Goes Like it Goes,” about blessing the hands of the working man as we see pictures of Norma Rae (Sally Field in her first Oscar winning role) as she grows up. But all of this nurturing has occurred within the boundaries of this insulated, poverty-constricting environment. That melodic music is harshly contrasted with the next scene inside the mill where the sound of the manufacturing machinery is deafening. This counterpoint seems to imply that the voices of the workers are drowned out by toiling under punishing circumstances, and they are rendered unable to hear the voice of another who argues against their way of life. In fact, Norma’s mother, Leona (Barbara Baxley) can’t hear her own daughter speak during a break (yes, the whole family works here, because it is the only industry in the area, and, thus, the company has all of the power over their lives in the absence of choice). And, Norma’s voice is ignored when she complains to the company doctor that the hearing loss will eventually become permanent. In this scene, we do see that Norma is already defiant against unfair treatment as she says to her mother, “They don’t care about you.”
During that work break, as Norma talks with a fellow employee, we immediately get a feel for how the meager income existence has not left much opportunity for enjoyment here. The friend’s only excitement was jarring a large amount of fruit on the weekend. Norma uses humor to cope with her situation. When asked what she did, Norma says, “I soaked my feet.” But, her friend noticed that Norma was with a man with a nice car, and Norma readily admits that she spent time with him at the motel. But, her sleeping around can, at least in part, be understood as wanting to escape the dreary drudgery of the work week. When her father, Vernon (Pat Hingle), worried about her going out to meet men, asks where she is going as she prepares to leave the house, she sarcastically says she is going to buy underwear, some Kotex, and then she’ll be so worn out by all the excitement, she’ll have to come home. We do witness that she cares about her two children as she limits how much “junk” they watch on TV, and instructs them to finish their homework.
There is a switch to the other main character, Reuben Warshowskey, (Ron Leibman, who was robbed of at least an Oscar nomination for his powerful performance). His last name implies that he goes to “war” to help workers and “show” them the need to unionize. Although we learn that he has a great deal of experience as a union recruiter, he is a foreigner to these parts, and is suspect as an outsider. He goes to the door of one of the locals saying he’d like to board with a mill worker. The home owner asks him what kind of name is Warshowskey. There is the suggestion of anti-Semitism, which Reuben deflects when he says that his name is the kind you have to spell out. The scene shows the cultural barrier he must deal with. That negativity toward his Jewish background becomes overt when Reuben inquirers at Norma’s house. Her father, with Norma observing the encounter, is hostile toward union people, telling Reuben they are, “communists, crooks and Jews.” Vernon, like many others, has been indoctrinated to demonize anyone who will challenge the entrenched familiarity of the status quo.
Reuben and Norma continue getting to know about each other and their worlds in humorous and serious ways when they meet at a local baseball game. He can’t even eat one of the local hot dogs, pointing out it isn’t anything like one from Nathan’s of New York, and she says that the local hot dogs contain a lot of different food colorings and a great deal of stuff he doesn’t want to know about. Ellis Harper (John Calvin) confronts Norma saying she looks fine, basically making a sexual overture, Norma is a bit embarrassed as we can see by the way she shoots a sideways glance at Reuben. She says that maybe he should show up to see his son. He says he can’t do that and leaves. She tells Reuban that Ellis got her pregnant with her son, and he hasn’t been good for anything since. Despite admitting to her mistake with Ellis, she shows that she exercised some control over the situation when asked by Reuben if she married Ellis. She says, “He didn’t bother. I didn’t bother.” Reuben shares the story of his first sexual encounter which was with his piano teacher. The husband came home, cried, and Reuben felt badly, and the three shared some tea. His sophisticated New York experience is quite different, and amusing in contrast. But it is also significant that he relates a story about how a woman was looking for sexual satisfaction, subverting the typical double standard belief that it is only the male who needs to seek sexual gratification. Norma comments that what must Reuben think of her, always being hassled by some man when they meet. He tells her, “I think you’re too smart for what’s happening to you.” His statement shows that he acknowledges Norma’s intelligence, provides her with validation of her worth, and offers urging for her to escape her situation.
At work, Norma encounters Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), who acts strangely, jumping from one task to another so Norma can’t track his activities, and clownishly diving into a bin filled with cotton. He later shows up at Norma’s house and apologizes for his actions. He says that he was just served his divorce papers, and it triggered his unorthodox behavior. The two knew each other as children, showing the smallness of small towns, and he invites her out for a drink to make up for what happened earlier. At the bar, Sonny admits that he had a gun and thought about using it against his wife and her boyfriend, but says he couldn’t do that. He admits that his wife was a good person, but somehow she changed. Norma admits to being different now, too, which probably refers to not only what has happened in her past, but also Reuben’s effect on what she wants to do with her life. She hears a song playing that was what she heard when she found out that her husband, the father of her daughter, was killed in a bar fight. The lives of these afflicted people are fraught with sadness. Norma sees Reuben and invites him to join them. This little action shows the resistance to outsiders as Sonny doesn’t want the intrusion. But, it also shows how Norma is more open to inviting someone, and something, new into her life. Sonny is polite though, but says to Reuben that there better be more than just himself to fight the rich guys, who have all of the power. Reuben has only had club soda, so he becomes the designated driver when the other two become drunk. When he has to pull over because Norma is ill, it is Reuben who sticks with her as she becomes sick, again showing how he is there for her.
Norma gets the silent treatment from her friends at work because she has joined the ranks of the supervisors. The only word one says to her is “Fink.” She quits the new job, and realizes that was management’s purpose all along. They wanted to cause ill will toward Norma on behalf of the other workers, and wanted to show her that she couldn’t have it both ways, because being a supervisor means sacrificing congeniality with the other workers. When she returns to working the machines, she is again accepted by her fellow employees.
Sonny proposes to Norma in a very unromantic manner. Because their lives are under such economic strains, Sonny feels the need to compose his proposal in practical terms. He says that he can fix anything electrical, started a new job at a gas station, and will turn over his paycheck. They have brought their children on their date to show what they are getting into together. Norma says it’s been a long time between offers, as if this is a business deal. But, she does ask him to kiss her, although it is to seal the deal, and says if the kiss works, then everything else will be okay. They are married at a tiny ceremony with no frills. Sonny, in a toast to Norma, says he hopes he “can keep up with her.” Just like Reuben, he knows what a force of nature Norma can be, and he accepts it, and doesn’t make it his goal, like other men in the region, to try and break her will.
Reuben speaks to a small gathering of potential union members at an African American church. Blacks in this country know about oppression and are more willing to aid a cause to fight imposed injustice. Reuben’s speech emphasizes the power of people in large numbers, noting that over eight hundred union workers of various beliefs and ethnic backgrounds showed up at his grandfather’s funeral in New York. He comes from someplace else, to bring them alternatives that do not exist in their socially insulated community. Though the workers at the funeral came from different backgrounds, they had fought together and “they were one. That’s what union is.” He notes that the textile industry is the only one that was not unionized in the United States. A lucrative business that has no checks on its economic power means “they are free to exploit you, to cheat you, to lie to you, and to take away what is rightfully yours - your health, a decent wage, and a fit place to work.” It does not seem like a great deal to ask.
The company now tries to stir up racial trouble by posting a statement on the bulletin board that says that the blacks want to take over the union and boss the white workers around. An interracial fight breaks out, and after Norma informs Reuben of what’s happening he tells her he needs her to record what the bulletin says. She courageously defies the supervisors, but at the loss of her job, as her boss says she was using the company’s phone for private use. She stands up in the middle of the mill holding a sign that says “Union” on it. The other workers show their support by turning off their machines, stopping production. Norma is hauled off, kicking and screaming, and booked for disorderly conduct. She calls Reuben, who bails her out. She cries on the way back home but Reuben tells her of much worse stories of those who tried to unionize companies. He talks of a pregnant woman hit in the stomach with a club, a sixteen-year-old boy shot in the back, and a guy who whose car blew up when he started it. His words remind us of how hard it was to earn the rights many workers now take for granted.
At home, Sonny questions Reuben why Norma called him and not her husband. Reuben says she knew he could make bail. Sonny echoes what he said about his first wife, that Norma has changed. But, Reuben, announcing Norma’s liberation, says that Norma stood up on that table, defied what was trying to keep her down, and is a free woman. Either Sonny can accept that or not. Later in their bed, Sonny asks if Norma ever slept with Reuben. She says no, but he’s in her head. Perhaps that joining can be more profound than a physical one. Sonny seems to accept that, but shows his commitment to Norma, and accepts her freedom, by saying that he will stick with her in sickness, bad times, and old age, and nobody else is in his head.
The workers vote to join the union. Reuben’s work there is done, and is ready to move on. He and Norma say their goodbyes, and express their gratitude for what each has given to each other. But, fittingly, they do not give each other a farewell hug or kiss. They shake hands, showing that their coming together was one of mutual respect and admiration, separate from any connections to their genders. The movie ends as it began with Jennifer Warnes singing. The lines from the song are ones that we can all join in on, with one voice: “Maybe what’s good gets a little bit better/And maybe what’s bad, gets gone.”
The next film is Coming Home.