In my memory, there are few images of union organizing more iconic than the moment Norma Rae, played by Sally Field in the film by the same name, refuses to be driven out of her workplace for union organizing efforts at an Alabama textile mill. Instead of leaving the shop floor, she stands up on a work table and holds a cardboard sign above her head with the word “UNION” written in scrawled, black letters. She slowly turns around so all the workers in the mill can see the sign and one-by-one the workers shut down the machines.
That scene from the 1979 film still gives me chills. I must have been in my early teens when I first saw the movie on TV and I recall it being one of those small moments of transformation in my life – a moment that showed me that there were people who refused to be intimidated, who would not be derailed from the pursuit of justice. Norma Rae was that kind of movie for me because the lead character was not a superstar or celebrity. She did not possess superpowers. She was a woman who struggled to make ends meet her whole life and yet she became a leader helping to unionize her shop. That scene was also moving because one-by-one each worker is called to make a decision – to stand with Norma Rae and shut down their machine in front of the boss and security, or duck-and-cover and bow down to the boss. Would they stand together and resist appalling working conditions and demand justice? Or, would they attempt to “look out for number one” and turn their backs on their brothers and sisters? Through the lens of my Irish Catholic up-bringing, it was a choice between good and evil, right and wrong, Jesus and Judas.
It wasn’t until many years later that I learned that Norma Rae was based upon the life of Crystal Lee Sutton (1940-2009), a union organizer at the J.P. Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapid, North Carolina. Norma Rae’s defiant stand actually happened. And the workers won the fight in North Carolina, the state with the lowest rate of unionization in the country, and against the nation’s largest, and arguably most vehemently anti-union, textile manufacturer. Crystal Lee Sutton’s fight against J.P. Stevens is still a case study in union-busting. Writing following Sutton’s death in 2009, Bruce Raynor summed up J.P. Stevens’s anti-union efforts as such:
For decades, JP Stevens called the shots in Roanoke Rapid, North Carolina, paying poverty wages and offering deplorably unsafe working conditions. Workers routinely lost fingers, inhaled cotton dust, and lost hearing due to the deafening drone of machinery. JP Stevens was so vehemently anti-union that it systematically purchased small unionized textile mills in the south only to close them down. But as determined as JP Stevens was to keep its workers down, Crystal Lee Sutton was even more determined to lift them up and bring them a union…
…JP Stevens mounted one of the most vigorously hostile union-busting efforts ever seen in U.S. history, amounting in over 122 unfair labor practice findings. But Sutton could not be deterred and at the end of a 10-year boycott, the 3,000 workers at JP Stevens won their 17 year fight with a strong contract.
It was a remarkable moment in American history. And, Norma Rae was a remarkable moment in American film history. I can’t even imaging a film like Norma Rae getting produced today. But, such a film is needed now more than ever.
It’s Amazing What You Can Find on the Google
Last week I wrote about a union organizing campaign at Blu Homes’ new production facility in Vallejo, CA. I have to admit, that I am getting a little obsessed with the story. Whenever I have a few minutes of downtime, I find myself Googling Blu Homes, checking out the Blu Homes Workers Facebook page for updates, and poking around the web for historical context.
Guess what I found out.
You may recall that the Blu Homes Workers, represented by the Carpenters Union, put out a four-page pamphlet focusing on the company’s decision to hire union-busting law firm, Ogletree Deakins. The pamphlet calls out Blu Homes for going the union-busting route:
When workers at Blu Homes’s facility in Vallejo came together to form a union and request that the company bargain with the Carpenters Union, Blu Homes management was faced with a decision. They could have respected their employees’ rights and recognized the workers’ request immediately and began the bargaining process. Or, they could have chosen a path that is all too typical for a company when workers choose to exercise their rights to free association; hire a prominent union busting law firm and refuse to bargain with their workers. Unfortunately, Blu Homes chose the latter path, hiring one of the Country’s largest and most notorious corporate law firms: Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak, and Stewart.
In my previous article, I focused in on Ogletree Deakins’s long-time relationship with the infamous Massey Energy (anti-union owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine), because that relationship stood in such contradiction to Blu Homes own deep commitments to Green building and environmental stewardship. And, Blu Homes co-owner Bill Haney had written and directed several environmental documentaries including The Last Mountain, which showcased the devastation Massey Energy wrought in Appalachia with its mountain top removal mining. What is up with this guy hiring the same union-busting firm that has kept Massey Energy up and running in the face of continuous environmental and safety violations? Well, it gets better.
I came across an article from the Greensville Business Magazine from August 2010. The article profiles, Fred W. Suggs, a founding lawyer of Ogletree Deakins. Here’s the part that piqued my interest:
Suggs says professionally he is most proud of his relationship and representation of textile giant J.P. Stevens, “In 1975 J.P. Stevens was in trouble with the labor board and the courts. Representing J.P. Stevens was a baptism by fire for a newly minted labor lawyer. We were fighting union petitions all over the South, defending scores of alleged unfair labor practices. The work for J.P. Stevens was great training for a young labor lawyer, and I am thankful for having the opportunity to work on those cases, which are studies today by labor law students.”
Yes. They are studied by labor law students. And those labor law students who are committed to defending worker rights know them to be some of the classic cases in union-busting. And, if those labor law students are also students of the labor movement or 1970s fill buffs, they might also recall that J.P. Stevens was the very “textile giant” that Crystal Lee Sutton – Norma Rae – fought so courageously.
No Green for You, Norma Rae
And so we come full-circle. Sort of. In the 1970s, J.P. Stevens was clearly a villain. For example, the scene depicting Norma Rae’s/Crystal Lee Sutton’s firing shows her copying a notice urging employees not to vote for the union, for if they did, black people would run it. The case of Blu Homes going the union-busting route is much more troubling because it gives union-busting an “Energy Star” seal of approval. Bill Haney may as well be the poster boy for 21st Century environmentalism. He’s supposed to be one of the “good guys.” What the hell is going on here?
In his recent book, Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, Chris Hayes writes the following:
Vertical social distance…refers to the gap between decision-makers and the people those decisions affect. Its growth is what presents the most acute existential threat to our project of self-governance. It is the experienced of extreme vertical social distance, of feeling alienated from a shadowy and unresponsive set of incumbent elites, that constitutes the single shared grievance across lines of party and ideology.
Put another way, Occupiers and Tea-Partiers have some shared ground based in real experience: the people who are supposed to be representing us in our democracy are so removed from our everyday lives, they are incapable of representing the vast majority of us any longer. I would add that this “vertical social distance” is what puts elite environmentalists like Bill Haney and union-busting law firms like Ogletree Deakins in bed together. Whatever “good words” Haney may have to say about workers in his films, are betrayed by his deeds.
I can only hope that some aspiring activist documentarians have their video cameras focused in on Blu Homes Workers and their union organizing fight. This is a documentary in the making, a struggle that may very well set the tone for progressive political movements for the next decade. Will progressive elites build their Green, pre-fab homes in gated communities, further distancing themselves for working Americans? Or, will we double-down on Occupy’s “99%” and work together to urge Bill Haney and Blu Homes to do right by their workers?
Blue Homes Workers Ramp Up the Fight
This past week, Blu Homes workers ramped up their public information campaign at the Dwell on Design event in Los Angeles and the Pacific Coast Builders Conference in San Francisco. The San Francisco Sentinel described the Blu Homes Workers action at the Pacific Coast Builders Conference as follows:
The 30,000 attendees today at the annual Pacific Coast Builders Conference (PCBC) were greeted by a major protest from the employees of a green home building company seeking unionization of its northern California production facility.
More than 100 Blu Homes employees and members of the Carpenters Union Local 180 armed with giant 30-foot tall inflatable effigies of The Grim Reaper and a pig leafleted outside the largest gathering of the home building industry in the western United States today, the opening day of PCBC.
Blu Homes’ production workers are in a labor dispute with Blu Homes after company management has refused to recognize the union even after 38 of 45 workers at the company’s Vallejo signed a petition this year demanding representation by the Carpenters Union. More than 17 unfair Labor Charges have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board against Blu Homes.
The Carpenters Union charges that Blu Homes’ President Bill Haney and his behavior toward its workers and environmental practices do not match the pro-environment and pro-worker projects that have marked Mr. Haney’s career or the efforts of people on the company’s Board of Advisers, including Robert Kennedy, Jr., whose father played a pivotal role in the unionization of California farm workers.
It is clear that the Blu Homes Workers are not going to take the company’s attempts at union-busting lying down. And they are doing the best thing that they can do – taking their struggle out of the shop and into the public sphere.
I think there are some simple things we can all do right away to help support Blu Homes Workers right to form a union and to amplify their message in the public. First, check out the Blue Homes Workers Facebook page and “like” it. Second, visit The Price of Blue Homes webpage and find out more. Third, go to The Price of Blue Homes action page and send Bill Haney a little email encouraging him make good on his words. I can’t emphasize this last step enough. Let’s assume for the moment that Bill Haney has not completely turned his back on workers. Let him know how important it is to deepen the labor and environmentalist coalition in order to meet the attacks against our planet and the 99%. And, if anyone out there knows of anyone who’s had a Blu Home built in PA or the surrounding area, please let me know. I’d love to talk to them.
Kevin Mahoney | Founder and Editor Zero, Raging Chicken Press.