Directed by Martin Ritt and based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a Jewish union organizer comes to a small town in the South and is helped by a free-spirited woman in forming a union in a textile mill.
Textile workers operate machines during the song “It Goes Like It Goes.”
Norma Rae (Sally Field) is working with a weaving machine. In the break room she eats an apple for lunch because she is dieting. Leona (Barbara Baxley) asks her what she did on the weekend, and Norma Rae says she soaked her feet. Leona says she saw her in town Sunday with a man in a big car. Norma Rae says her name was on the hotel registry too. Norma Rae asks her mother why she has not opened up her sack, but her mother does not understand what she is saying. Norma Rae takes her by the hand to a supervisor and tells him that she cannot hear. The supervisor says she will recover, and he will give her a note. Norma Rae decides to take her home.
Norma Rae and her father Vernon (Pat Hingle) are working in the kitchen while her mother is watering a flower outside. Norma Rae finds her daughter watching television and urges her to do homework because of her poor grades. Norma Rae goes into her room and changes her blouse while her father turns his back. She says she is going into town to buy panties and a cotton bra size 32B. Then she is going to the drugstore to buy Kotex and a Cosmopolitan magazine.
Reuben Warshovsky (Ron Leibman) comes to the door, and Vernon asks what kind of a name that is. Reuben says he has to spell it for people. Vernon asks what he wants, and Reuben says he would like to rent a room with a mill family. Vernon says there is a hotel and a motel, but Reuben wants to get to know some mill hands. Vernon asks why, and Reuben says he just got into town an hour ago. He sees Norma Rae and says hello to her. He says the chief of police asked him what he was doing in town, and Reuben said he was a labor organizer who came to put a union in the O. P. Henley textile mill. The chief said no he won’t, and he gave him a ticket and told him to get out of town. Vernon says he was dead right because he considers people like him Communists, agitators, crooks, Jews, or all four rolled into one. He says that when those people come into town, people get thrown out of their jobs. Reuben asks to be excused and asks him how much he makes an hour. Vernon says he makes $1.33 a frame. Reuben asks when he got his last cost-of-living raise. Vernon says he has not had that. Reuben says that with today’s inflation, that makes him a schlemiel. Vernon asks if he is calling him a name, and he opens the screen door. Reuben says he is underpaid and overworked, and they are shafting him. He says he needs him. Vernon says if he runs fast, he will get to his car before his dog bites him. Norma Rae asks why he told him that because they don’t even have a dog. Reuben says they don’t need one, and he turns and walks toward his car.
Norma Rae is reading a magazine in the lobby of the motel, and Reuben comes in and asks for a vacancy. He says hello to Norma Rae and says that they have a friendly town because he has been told to go away and shove off. She tells Aston to give him room 31 where he won’t hear the drunks. A man comes in and is given a key. He walks by Norma Rae.
In the room Norma Rae is getting dressed and tells George that this is the last time. He says that is a surprise, and she says it has been coming on for some time. He did not notice and asks if she got her steak dinner and her box of pralines and if she came three times in a row. He guesses he doesn’t have what it takes to satisfy her anymore. She says it does not sit well with her anymore. He has a wife and two kids in high school, and there is a lot of gossip. She has two kids too, and it does not make her feel good. She says she is not trotting down there anymore. He asks what she is good for anyway. He slaps her hard.
Norma Rae comes out of the room holding her nose, and Reuben sees her walk by his room and says he heard a terrible thump. She says she was thrown across the room, and he tells her to come into his room so that he can give her some ice for that. She goes in, and he gives her ice in a cloth to hold next to her nose. He says he thought everyone in the South was like Ashley Wilkes; but she says if you lie down with dogs, you get fleas. She asks if her nose looks broken, and he does not think so. He offers her aspirin, a band-aid or valium, and she says he is a whole drugstore. He says he is a hypochondriac. She notices he has a lot of books and asks about the woman in a framed picture. He says her name is Dorothy Finkelstein, and she is a hot-shot labor lawyer out of Harvard. She asks if she is his girl-friend, and he says they sleep together on Sunday mornings and read the New York Times together. She introduces herself as Norma Rae Wilson, and they shake hands. She apologizes about her father who has a short fuse. He says his credentials keep him out of a lot of places. Once in a while people give him a nice bedroom and treat him like a cousin, and that is nice. She laughs and says that would not be her daddy. She asks if he is a Jew, and he says he was born and bred. She says she never met a Jew before. They shake hands again, and she says she heard they all had horns. He laughs and says circumcised yes, horns no. She says he does not look any different to her, and he says they are. She asks what makes him different, and he says history. They agree that her nose is better, and she thanks him for the ice. He says anytime. As she leaves, she says she hopes not.
In the morning Reuben is standing outside the mill passing out leaflets to departing workers and asks them to read it when they have a chance; he is from the Textile Workers Union of America. Norma Rae and her father arrive in a car and go in. Reuben also passes them out to workers going into the mill, and he asks Norma Rae about her nose. She tells him there are too many big words. If she cannot understand it, they won’t either. A supervisor asks Norma Rae if he is a friend of hers, and she says he is getting to be. The supervisor tells her to hurry or she will be late, and she says she does not care if she does not get there until tomorrow. The supervisor closes the gate, and he tells Reuben that one of these guys comes about every four years with the locusts. Reuben asks his name, and he says it is Jimmy Jerome Davis (Jack Stryker). Reuben says they already have six of their boss men in civil contempt and asks if he wants to make it seven. Davis says they use those to plaster the toilets, and he goes into the mill.
Inside Norma Rae is working, and men point that she needs to talk to someone. She says she told him she does not want to go out with him. She goes into an office, and the boss tells her that she has made a nuisance of herself asking for longer breaks and a Kotex pad machine. She says if they will do it, she will shut up. He says he will do better; they are promoting her to be a spot-checker. She says that won’t make her any friends, but he says they will pay her an extra $1.50 an hour. She goes out of his office.
Norma Rae in a yellow shirt with a clipboard watches people working. She times her father with a stop watch and advises him to speed it up a little because they are watching her and him.
At home Norma Rae comes out of the house and asks her father why he is sore at her. She says she needs the extra money for her kids. She tells her daughter and son to get out of the dirt and clean up.
At a local softball game at night Norma Rae is watching with Leona. Norma Rae goes to get a hot dog and sees Reuben who just bought one. He bites into it and does not like it and throws it away. Ellis Harper (John Calvin) says hello to Norma Rae and says she changed her hair. He asks about Craig, and she says it would not hurt if he came by to see him once in a while. She says he has always suited himself. He turns and walks away. Reuben buys a coke and pays for her food too. She says that gentleman gave him Craig, but he never married her. He tells about his first affair with a Hungarian piano teacher who put her head on his lap. Her husband found them in the bedroom, and he apologized; then they had tea. She says whenever he runs into her she is hassling with some other guy. She wonders what he thinks of her. He says she is too smart for what is happening to her.
Norma Rae is spot-checking, and Sonny (Beau Bridges) tells her to follow him. He jumps into a bin of cotton and acts like a clown. She warns him he will lose both of them their jobs.
At home Norma Rae answers the door and sees it is Sonny. She closes the door, but he rings again. She opens the door, and he says he came to apologize to her. He says he got his divorce papers, and he went off his head. He asks her to have a drink with him, and he reminds her that she used to come into his mother’s bakery. She remembers that and laughs about him then. She agrees to go out with him and tells her father. He objects when she says she just met him. She says she is over 21, and he mentions the men she has known. She says there is something wrong with the way he tries to keep men away from her. He says it is a daddy’s love, and she says he is loving her to death. She goes out.
Norma Rae and Sonny are drinking beer and enjoying juke-box music. She wishes she could make money by singing, but he says it does not always make them happy. He thinks a man and a woman is better, but she says he is one to talk. He wanted to burn his wife and her boyfriend, but he couldn’t. He says she was nice, but she changed. Norma Rae says she is different than what she was. She sees Reuben and calls for him to come over there. She introduces him to Sonny, and he sits down. He says he is working. Sonny offers him a drink, and Reuben says he is drinking club soda. Norma Rae says he is a union man. Sonny says there had better be more than one of him. He says everything goes to the rich man. Norma Rae says the song they are hearing was the one playing when she learned that her husband had been killed in a fight in a beer joint. Sonny says he remembers Buddy Wilson because they were in school together. She says he was drunk and got into a fight with broken beer bottles. She went to see his body, but her daddy would not let her. She says that was the end of Buddy.
The three come outside, and Reuben insists on driving because the other two are drunk. She talks about things she did with Buddy. She asks him to stop the car because she is going to be sick. He stops, and she gets out and throws up in the dark. She says someday she is going to get herself together. Reuben says to make it soon because he is going to start in on her.
Reuben is passing out leaflets and tells Norma Rae he got the words down to two syllables. She says one is better.
Inside Norma Rae finds the employees are not talking to her. She asks Billy Joe what is going on, and he calls her a “fink.” She goes to the office and tells the boss that nobody is talking to her. She says she is quitting. She says he is speeding them up so that he can weed them out. He says they will put her back to work in the weaving room. She goes out, throws aside the yellow shirt, and goes back to the weaving machines.
Sonny drives a truck and parks in front of the house and says good morning to Norma Rae who is with her daughter and son. Sonny puts the children in the back of the truck and drives off. She asks if they are going to the lake, and he says he has to make a stop first. He picks up his daughter Alice, and Norma Rae says the more the merrier.
At the lake Sonny says Norma Rae is easy with her kids. He says she is a pretty woman. She says she was good at eighteen, but things are sliding. She is okay in the dark, and he says he will take her where it is dark. He stands up and says he does not owe any money. He will eat what is put in front of him; but he is not all right until he gets his first cup of coffee. He can fix electrical things. He has a new job at the gas station, and he turns over his paycheck every Friday. He comes straight home from work, and he stays there. He and Alice are alone, and she is alone with her too kids. If she could help him, maybe he could help her. She says it has been a long time between offers. She tells him to kiss her. If that is all right, then everything else will be. He looks at her and slowly kisses her.
A minister declares Sonny and Norma Rae husband and wife, and they drink wine with the witnesses Leona and another woman. Sonny offers a toast to his wife Norma Rae, and he hopes he can keep up with her.
In the mill Leona shows Norma Rae a leaflet about a union meeting, and Norma Rae says she is going.
Norma Rae and Leona go to an old church. Inside Reuben is speaking to a few people from a podium while the black minister sits nearby. Reuben says that on October 8, 1970 his grandfather died at the age of 87. On the following Friday at his funeral a few relatives attended along with 862 members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union as members of his family. In life they had stood at his side, and they spoke in one voice and were heard. He says they were black and white, Catholics and Jews, and from different countries. They were one. He says the textile industry in which they are spending their lives is the only industry left in American that is not yet unionized. They can therefore exploit you and take away your rights to a fair wage and decent working conditions. He urges them to stop that by coming over to room 31 at the Cherry Motel and by signing a union card. He quotes the Bible, and he says they must make it happen. He says thank you, and people start leaving. Leona says everyone should have come, and he says next time. Norma Rae says he preaches well, and he asks when she is going to join up. She asks who has the time. He says to make the time because if they don’t do something soon, he will be gone; and they will have nothing. A black man shakes his hand, and Reuben says he could use any help he can get sending out letters. The man says he will show up.
Reuben parks his car by the gate and tells three bosses that he came to inspect the plant. He cites the federal court order that allows the union to inspect the bulletin boards inside the plant each week to make sure its notices are not being stripped off. They take him downstairs and give him ear plugs for the noise. He does not put them on and says good morning to people. A boss asks if he is moving too fast for him, and Reuben says he did his running in the army and asks him to slow down. Reuben talks to a worker, and a boss says he is interfering with the work. Reuben calls him brother, and the boss says he has no “kike” brother. They show him a small bulletin board, and he looks at ads; but he does not see his notice. A boss points to the top of the board, and he asks them to bring it down to eye-level so that people can read it. He will have to call his lawyers, and he asks for two nickels. They stop him, and a boss moves it down to eye-level. Reuben says he is going to read it. A boss complains, and Reuben warns him he could be accused of contempt and says he is reading it. He asks to see the other bulletin board, and they agree to show it to him. They go into another room, and he says good morning several times. Norma Rae sees him. They come to another bulletin board, but in front of it are large rolls of cloth. He tells them to move them, and he gets into an elevator with the big black man. The boss says to move the stuff.
Norma Rae goes to Reuben’s room and asks if he is busy. He is alone and invites her to come in. She asks if they ever clean up there. He says he does not want them messing with his stuff. She asks what happens if she joins up. He says she will not lose her job, and she can wear a union button, talk about the union during breaks, and pass out union pamphlets; and they can’t do anything to her. She says she was not a good girl scout, but she will go along with him. He smiles and says she is the fish he wanted to hook. She takes a deep breath and says he got her. She asks what he is going to do with her. He says he will make a mensch out of her, and she asks what that is. He says it is someone who visits the old folks home on Saturday morning or puts a dollar in a cup for a blind person. He has her sign a union card and asks why everyone around there has three names.
Norma Rae is wearing a union button and asks Wayne Billings (Morgan Paull) if she can pin a button on his shirt. He asks what he gets if he does. She says he gets nothing if he doesn’t. He remembers what they used to do and lets her pin it on him for bygone days. He asks if she will go out with him, and she urges him to take his wife out. A boss tells Norma Rae that she is getting in trouble. She says she had to go to the water fountain to cool her coffee, and he tells her to cool everything.
Norma Rae outside a church talks to the minister and asks how long she has been coming there. She asks if he calls her a good Christian. She asks to use the church for a union meeting with blacks and whites sitting together. She wants to know what his church stands for. If his church helps the union, the Lord will be on his side. If not, she will leave the church. He says they will miss her voice in the choir. She says he will hear it raised up someplace else.
Norma Rae parks a truck by an old house, and Sonny is on the porch. Four blacks get out of the back, and she tells them to go in and sit down. Carrying a bag of groceries, she tells her neighbor Jimmy Davis that they are going to hold a meeting in her house. She walks toward her house, and Sonny says she has gone too far because there are a bunch of black men in his house. He says it will cause trouble. She says she never had any trouble with black men in her life; the only trouble she has had was with white men. She goes in the house.
Inside the house is crowded, and Reuben says before he did all the talking. Now he wants them to speak. Two blacks speak first and say they deserve fair wages for their work. A young woman says that when she gets menstrual cramps, they don’t let her sit down on her job. An old woman says they have to have a note from a doctor to stop working. Another black man says there used to be a window where he works, but they closed it up to make them feel shut in. A woman says her husband recently died of brown lung; she has his clothes if anyone could use them.
Later Reuben and Norma Rae are sitting at the table, and he says he is not getting his message across. They had only 17 people there out of 800. She says things move slowly around here; this is not like New York. Her daughter tells her that Craig wet the bed. She says she warned him not to drink coke before sleeping, and she leaves the room. Reuben asks if she has any ideas, and she says to bring corn whiskey when they hit the back roads on Saturday.
Norma Rae and Reuben talk to an old man who is working on his tractor wheel. Reuben offers to fix it while the man reads a paper, but he does not know how to do it.
In town Norma Rae offers leaflets to men sitting on a store porch, but they are not interested.
On a farm Reuben falls on wet grass.
Reuben is swimming in a river while Norma Rae is washing his shirt. She says it is hot and that she is coming in. She takes off her shirt. They swim in the mud-hole. He feels something, and she says minnows will not hurt him. She asks what he would be doing in New York. He says he would go to the opera. He says she would love New York. She says he is homesick, and he has a skinny build. He says he tried working out with weights. She says he has a good head, and he uses it.
At the table Norma Rae is talking on the phone and says the line is being tapped. She talks to the person tapping the phone, and Henry hangs up. Sonny comes into the kitchen and says she is not getting any sleep nor is he, and they have to work. He asks if she is paying the phone bill, and she says it comes out of her check. He drinks milk and says it is sour. She says she did not get to the market. He says she also did not get to the kids and to him. He is angry and complains they do not have clean clothes. She puts a pot on the stove with water and starts throwing food into it while she asks him if he wants cooking. She throws the dirty clothes in the sink and pours in liquid soap, asking if he wants laundry. She starts ironing and asks if he wants to make love, he can get behind her and make love. He laughs and kisses her.
Norma Rae at the mill during a break is passing out papers about a meeting as she talks to people. She tells them to come to the motel to help. She sits down next to her father and asks if he is all right. He says he is the same. She asks if he has been drinking. He says he wonders when he lies down, if he is going to get up again. He says he is going to take her out for a grand supper, and he kisses her head.
In the motel Norma Rae is typing slowly while Reuben works at a table. She says she has to go home. She notices a new picture of Dorothy and asks him about her. He says her mother sent it to him. His mother loves her because Dorothy has everything. Norma Rae asks why she is so smart, and he says books. She looks at a book and asks who is Dylan Thomas. He says he was a poet, a genius, and a drunk. She asks why she should read him. He quotes, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” She says she will try him. He asks her not to eat while she reads his books.
Reuben sits in the back of an empty church.
Reuben parks his car and knocks on a door, calling for Warren who answers the door. Reuben asks why no one came to the meeting. Warren says they got them on a stretch-out, a three-day week, twice as much work for half the pay all on account of him. Warren tells him to stand there a minute, and he goes and gets a pot with three turnips which is supper for seven people. He tells him to sell his union someplace else and slams the door. Reuben says he is trying and walks away.
In the mill Vernon is working hard and tells the boss Jimmy that his arm is numb again and that he had better lie down. Jimmy says his break is coming up, and Vernon goes back to work. He collapses.
At the funeral people watch as the casket is lowered into the ground.
Several people are working in the motel room. A man comes in, and Norma Rae complains he is late. She says she is working nine or more hours a day there. Reuben tells her to shut up and leave the office. She goes out. Reuben tells Peter to get to work.
Norma is sitting at a counter with coffee and pie. Reuben comes in and tells her she is too muscular. If she was the State Department, they would be at war. She knows the union is the only way they will get better, and that is why she pushes. He eats pie and tells her that she is their Mother Jones who helped the coal miners in West Virginia. She asks if he is mad at her. He says if he needs a smart, loud, profane, sloppy, hard-working woman, he would pick her. She asks why sloppy when no one wears girdles anymore. He gives her the check for the pie and says he did not order it. He walks away as she says he ate it.
At night Norma Rae has fallen asleep in the motel room, and two older men knock and enter and ask for Reuben. She says he is at the printer. Sam Dakin asks if she is Norma Rae and says they are from the union headquarters. She tells them they need envelopes, stamps, typing paper, a loudspeaker, and typewriters that don’t stick. Al Landon says they are not office suppliers. Reuben comes in and says Sam is getting fat. He hands a bundle to Norma Rae. Al says he is not making headway there. Sam says this is a southern town, and he needs to keep his nose clean. They ask if Norma Rae wants to leave the room. Sam says it concerns her. The company will use anything to make them look bad. Sam says the mill hands go to church every Sunday. People are saying she made a porno movie. She has an illegitimate child, and she has slept around. She takes naps on his bed late at night. Reuben says he does not believe this and says he has been working 18-hour days. He says she has broken her ass for this organization and does not have time to see her kids or take a bath. He tells them to make it stick or get out of there. He opens the door, and they go out. She says she will quit if he wants. He asks why she was sleeping when she was supposed to type some letters for him.
At the mill Norma Rae talks on the phone, and a boss comes in. She sees the boss and asks Reuben to meet her at the break.
Outside the mill five white workers are beating up a black worker. Norma Rae comes out and sees them. Some black workers arrive and break it up. Reuben arrives in his car, gets out, and asks her what started it. She says they are telling the white workers that the blacks are going to take over the union and push them around. He says they can take legal action. He tells her to go in and get him the letter. She says she can’t take it off the board. He tells her to get someone to help her write it down.
Inside Norma Rae takes a cup and goes to the bulletin board and tries to memorize it. In a bathroom she writes on toilet paper.
In the motel room Reuben reads the letter and asks where the rest of it is. She says she could not remember any more. He tells her to go there and write it down line for line. She says her husband does not like what she is doing, and she does not want his boot on her. She says he needs a woman. He says tonight is the night. She asks what Dorothy would say, and he responds, “Wear a rubber” and goes out.
In the mill Norma Rae is looking at the bulletin and writing while four bosses stand around her. She says she is going to copy down every word on her break time. Mr. Mason arrives and orders her to stop what she is doing. She says she is going to finish it. After she finishes the letter, he tells her to come to his office.
In Mason’s office six men are standing behind her, and she says she is going to write down the names of those men. Mason says he wants her out of there quick. She leaves the office and goes to a weaving machine. She says she is staying put. A boss comes after. She speaks to the workers that she is not leaving until a sheriff comes. She stands up on a table, kneels to make a sign, and then holds up the “UNION” sign. Workers look at her and stand still. Leona and another woman stop their machines, and a black woman stops her. Gradually others stop their machines also. She continues to hold the sign and look at them. The bosses come in and tell her to come down. She drops the sign and steps down. She tells Sheriff Lamar Miller that she wants him to write that he is going to take her straight home, and she wants him to sign it and hand it to her. Mason tells him to take her out. Lamar is not sure he wants to get in the same car with her. She says she will not bite him, and she walks out of the mill with him.
Outside she sees the police car and says he is taking her to jail. She shouts no and tries to get away. Officers carry her and put her into the car as she is screaming.
At the police station Lamar formally puts her under arrest for disorderly conduct. A woman officer takes her to a cell. Lamar says she has one phone call and should call Sonny. She says she is calling her labor organizer.
In a car at night Reuben says he knows that the first time is hard. Norma Rae is crying, and he says it comes with the job. He tells her about people who have been injured and killed. He says she got her feet wet.
Sonny is washing dishes when Norma Rae comes in with Reuben. She wakes up the three children and brings them into the living-room for a talk. She says she loves them, and Sonny loves them. She says they will be hearing that she is a jailbird. She tells Millie that her daddy was Buddy Wilson, but he died. She tells Craig that she was not married to his daddy, and he was not Buddy nor Sonny. She says there have been other men in her life. She is not perfect, and she has made mistakes. She has pictures of their daddies that belong to them. If they go in the mill, she wants their life to be better than hers. That is why she joined the union, and that is why she was fired. Now they know what she is, and she believes in standing up for what she thinks is right. She kisses them and sends them back to bed. She says she is going to take a bath. Sonny says she had one call, and she called Reuben who says she knew he had the money to make bail. Sonny says he turned her head around and changed her; he does not want that. He asks what is going to happen now. Reuben says she stood up and is now a free woman. Maybe he can live with that, and maybe he can’t.
Norma Rae is in bed, and Sonny asks her if she slept with Reuben. She says no, but she admits that he is in her head. Sonny says he will see her through getting sick, tired, and old, and there is no one else in his head. He turns out the light and gets in bed. She cuddles up to him.
In the mill a boss and a black worker are counting the votes while others stand around and watch. The room is filled with the employees and is quiet. One woman feels hot and faints. A man reads the results with 373 votes for the O. P. Henley company.
Reuben and Norma Rae are listening outside.
The man reads that the votes for the union are 425, and workers cheer, applaud, and start chanting “Union.”
Outside Reuben and Norma Rae hear this, smile, and walk to his loaded car. She asks if he is going to drive straight through, and he says yes. She advises him to stop for coffee to stay awake. He asks what she is going to do now, and she says, “Live.” She asks who reads his mail, and he says his mother. He offers to send her a copy of Dylan Thomas, and she says she already bought one. He says she did a mitzvah for them, a good work. He does not say goodbye, but he tells her to be happy and be well. She says the same to him. He thanks her for her companionship, her stamina, her horse sense, and 101 laughs. He enjoyed looking at her shining face. She says he likes her, and he admits that he does. She says she was going to buy him something, but she didn’t know what he would like. He says what he got from her has been of some use. They shake hands and look into each other’s eyes. He gets in the car and drives off.
This classic union drama shows how even in the conservative South poor people can be persuaded to work for their rights by cooperating with each other. Two very different people were able to work together for what they believe is right, and as a result many people would participate and improve their lives.