We can all learn from Norma Rae

April 19, 2022 Uncategorized

by Justin Power,
SDA Assistant Sectretary

During my recent holidays, I had an opportunity to watch the 1979 film ‘Norma Rae’. Norma Rae, played by Sally Field in her Oscar winning role, is a southern textile worker from America who is employed in a factory with intolerable working conditions. The movie effectively portrays the plight of the mill workers where everyday working conditions involve a hot, noisy, and crowded environment, unfeeling bosses, and a regimented day.

Norma Rae’s ‘nothing special’ life changes when she and her co-workers meet Reuben, a dedicated union organiser. Together, they undertake the difficult struggle to unionise their factory.

During the film, there were many dramatic scenes including one where Reuben met some of the workers for the first time. He spoke to them about his experiences of unionism and how it gave workers the opportunity to reclaim their worth and dignity in their workplace.

Reuben said that without a union, management was free to exploit you, lie to you and cheat you. They could take away from you what is rightfully yours – your health, a decent wage….a fit place to work. The scene concluded with Reuben indicating that this would continue to happen if and only if the factory workers let it happen.

During the movie, Norma faced many hurdles both from her own workmates and from management. She met these hurdles head on and very slowly her workmates concluded that by joining the union, they were able to speak in one voice and be heard. They concluded that unionism gave them a united voice and gave them some chance of having decent wages and working conditions.

Australia today

The drums have already started beating. More and more we hear conservative politicians, employers and extreme media commentators suggesting that Australian workers have it too good. Their dogma appeals to many but upon close analysis, they are clearly suggesting that we pay ourselves too much and our working conditions are too good. In other words, they have concluded that SDA members and other union members should be paid less so we, that is, Australia, can compete internationally with workers on inferior wages.

I, for one, am very proud of the achievements of the SDA. I am very proud that:

  • the SDA has negotiated Enterprise Agreements with retail, retail distribution and fast food employers;
  • the SDA is fighting hard to keep the benefits we currently have in our Agreements;
  • The SDA continues to negotiate improvements in Occupational Health and Safety and Workers’ Compensation laws; and
  • The SDA continues to successfully argue for improved occupational superannuation.

We can all learn from Norma Rae. Personally, I do not want to go back to those days and that time. Unionism gave Norma Rae and her workmates a voice. In 2022, the SDA gives retail workers, retail distribution workers and fast food workers a voice.

Be Union. Be SDA. Be proud!