Library Moments: Labour Day

Sally Fields in the iconic scene from Norma Rae.

Sally Fields in the iconic scene from Norma Rae.

Bessie Sullivan, County Librarian: Hello, I’m Bessie Sullivan from the Haliburton County Public Library and this is Library Moments. Once a week some of us from the library will come and talk about books, upcoming events, or the services we offer at the library.

Labour Day has roots in the Labour Movement, it was intended as a day where we reflect on improvements to labour practices such as banning child labour, limiting the length of a work day and a work week, paying women and men equally for the same work, and giving workers the right to a harassment free workplace.  

This week on Library Moments in celebration of Labour Day Sherrill Sherwood, Erin Kernohan-Berning and I will each talk about a movie that tells the story of some aspect of the labour movement over the years.

north countrySherrill Sherwood, Collections Development: Based on true events, North Country tells the story of Josey Aimes, played by Charlize Theron, who in 1975 returns to her hometown in Northern Minnesota in the wake of a failed marriage. Hoping to build a better life for herself and her two children, Josey’s friend Glory encourages her to take a job at the mine. Glory is one of the few female miners in town. Josey is prepared for the backbreaking and often dangerous work, but coping with the harassment she and the other female miners encounter from their male coworkers proves far more challenging. Her attempts to carve out a better future for her family put her at odds with her children, her disapproving parents, and her community. Through this struggle she finds the courage to stand up for what she believes in – even if that means standing alone. Ultimately, her journey takes her farther than she could have ever imagined and inspires countless others to follow. Theron’s character is based on Lois Jenson, who in 1988 led her female co-workers in the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit and won after many long years in court. Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines proved women could prevail as a group against sex-based employment discrimination and galvanized employers across the country to adopt substantial anti-sexual harassment policies. In an interview Jenson said she doesn’t regret sacrificing 15 years of her life to the struggle for justice. “I would take it up again,” she said “It was worth the fight.”

Norma_rae_ver2Erin Kernohan-Berning, Branch Services Librarian: The inspiration for the 1979 film Norma Rae, Crystal Lee Sutton, would have faced some pretty dismal conditions when she worked for the J.P. Stevens textile mill in North Carolina. Working for $2.65/hour Sutton would have worked 12 hour days 6 days per week in hot, noisy, and dangerous conditions. Textile plants at the time were filled with airborne fibres, including asbestos, and workers often developed asbestosis and brown lung from the constant exposure. Most textile workers lived in poverty, dealing with substandard housing and receiving no compensation for on-the-job injuries – often injured workers were fired because they couldn’t work. When the Amalgamated Clothing & Textile Workers Union attempted to unionize the J.P. Stevens plant workers, pro-union supporters, including Sutton, were subject to strong arm tactics and threats. Sutton’s last stand against J.P. Stevens was immortalized in Norma Rae with Sally Fields depicting her writing UNION in big letters on a piece of cardboard and standing on her worktable. One by one the plant workers turned to her and silenced their machines halting production for mere minutes before she was physically removed by police from the plant. Ultimately, Sutton’s efforts helped the J.P. Stevens plant workers unionize, receive better wages and improve working conditions – and the film Norma Rae bolstered the continuing efforts of the ACTWU with Sutton touring the US as “the real Norma Rae”.

Fast forward to today and all is still not wonderful with our modern garment industry. Cheap clothing for Western companies is often made in factories overseas where the daily wages barely meet what Sutton was making hourly in the 1970s, and under conditions that are often worse than what she encountered. After a garment factory building collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 killing over 1000 workers, garment workers took to the streets to protest. The lessons from Norma Rae are certainly not an artifact of the 1970s as the same battle for a living wage and safe working conditions is still being fought by the people who make the clothing we wear everyday.

Made_in_dagenham_posterBessie: The film Made in Dagenham was shown in Haliburton in 2010 as part of “Those Other Movies.” It is 1968 and Rita O’Grady  works for the Ford Motor Co. plant in Dagenham, England. Despite performing the specialized task of sewing upholstery for car seats, women are classified as unskilled labour and paid much less than men. Encouraged by a sympathetic union representative, Rita agrees to bring the women’s grievances to Ford. The meeting goes badly and, outraged by the company’s lack of respect for them, Rita leads her colleagues to strike.  Initially the women’s strike has no heft, but then the rest of the plant runs out of car seats, at this point it becomes clear that without the women, there will be no car production.  This strike was successful and paved the way to the Equal Pay Act of 1970 in England.

Unfortunately despite the fact that our own country passed a Pay Equity Act in 1987 when women were paid .64 cents for every 1.00 a man made, the gap has only improved by ten cents where today women make .74 cents for every dollar.

Based on the fact that there continue to be movies made about labour conditions, and that issues like harassment, working conditions, and equal pay still prevail, it is easy to see why we need to celebrate Labour Day.  That’s it for Library Moments and thank you for listening here on 100.9 CanoeFM.

*Originally aired on 100.9 CANOE FM.

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