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Bureaucracy in Norma Rae by Martin Ritt

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The movie Norma Rae depicts a single mother who follows her family’s long history of manual labor within an oppressive textile mill in North Carolina. (Ritt) Throughout the film, the character Norma Rae has to endure excessive themes of gender inequality, racial discrimination, differing religious beliefs, oppression, poverty, and unjust labor laws. With the help of a union organizer named Reuben Warshowsky, Norma Rae gathers some of her fellow mill workers in hopes of starting a union and fighting for better working conditions. However, her actions are ultimately met by severe backlash and disapproval from the mill owners, her husband, the law, local town members, and even her family. In this essay I will analyze and discuss three different readings from our discussions that examine bureaucracies from multiple perspectives. Furthermore, I will reference those concepts to the central themes of Norma Rae, as well as correlating the character’s experiences to modern day working conditions. In specific, I will discuss Max Weber’s “Economy and Society”, Richard Edwards’ “Contested Terrain”, and David Mechanic’s “Sources of Power of Lower Participants in Complex Organizations”.

In his book titled “Economy and Society”, Max Weber references the principle power relations that take place between worker and cooperation within bureaucracies. For Weber, he believes that the characteristics of a bureaucracy are rooted in a clear, concise, and functional system of authority. (Weber) A bureaucracy is a hierarchy that is capable of regulating job tasks, as well as maintaining a system of rules that governs the daily responsibilities of every member within each respective organization. (Weber) These rules are thus all written down and accepted by each member of the organization in order to prolong the functional life of a company. Simply put, individuals within a bureaucracy are appointed positions and trained for those specific positions in relation to their specialized qualifications. (Weber) For example, Norma Rae was hired as a machine textile worker and she was trained to do a few tasks consistently. However, one must realize that there are numerous universal rules that come with all positions within the textile mill that everyone must abide to. Each individual is committed to the rules of the organizations and the job description that they were hired for. This ultimately means that they must limit their personal life problems from interfering with their work, they need to respect and comprehend the hierarchy of power, as well as maintaining their focus on their specialized daily tasks. (Weber)

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However, for Norma Rae she did not believe in these bureaucratic principles and we see this through numerous examples within the film that shows her consistent struggle to make a change for herself and her coworkers. Some examples include multiple visits to her superior’s office asking for things like longer breaks, female hygiene products, and higher wages. Although not always followed, the majority of corporations today have focused on giving their female workers access to all the resources they need to successfully do their jobs. However our society still underpays women, especially within bureaucracies. According to Weber, bureaucracies cannot be destroyed once they are built. (Weber) Norma Rae is thus a small cog in the bigger picture of the organization and her actions affect the bottom line for the textile mill because all of the cogs in the wheel must function together in order to succeed. One of the core examples of how bureaucracies remain intact within the film occurs when Norma Rae is promoted by her boss after refusing to accept the working conditions she was placed in. Norma Rae needed more money to support her family, however this promotion ultimately affected her social groups within the mill. Once promoted to a higher position, the rest of the mill workers judged norma for leaving them and she was ultimately outcasted by the community she built within the mill. I believe that this was a manipulative move by her superiors to prove to Norma that their oppressive bureaucratic ways are there for a reason and that when someone tries to go against that — it ultimately fails. This supports Weber’s argument because it reveals the power of rules and how they must be followed by all in order for the system to properly function. (Weber)

On the other hand, Alvin Gouldner focused his attention on three different forms of bureaucracies that differed from Max Weber’s analysis. At the root of his argument, Gouldner believed that a representative bureaucracy is more efficient than an authoritarian one. (Gouldner) Gouldner defines mock bureaucracies as not having enforced rules, but management and the workers abided by the same regulations. On the other hand, representative bureaucracy focuses on educating workers in order to provide an organized and enforced a set of rules, for example rules regarding safety. The last category is punishment bureaucracy and that is created by management in order to limit absent actions. (Gouldner) Beyond physically missing work, these bureaucratic ideals believed that punishment correlated to quality workers because the workers understood the standards that were being asked of them, as well as the ramifications that would be placed upon them if they did not meet those standards. (Gouldner) In reference to the film, we can see that the mill was an authoritarian bureaucracy however it maintained aspects of the punishment bureaucracy. The textile mill enforced rules regarding breaks, where workers could and could not be in the factory, and even bathroom breaks. We can see these rules play out within our society today with limited lunch hours, dedicated shift hours, and codes of conduct within workplaces.

Conversely, within his book titled “Sources of Power of Lower Participants in Complex Organizations”, David Mechanic analyzes the value of the worker as well as their willingness to express power. (Gouldner) Some of these examples include being interested in the work they do, putting in effort into their job and even things like attractiveness. (Gouldner) This is a crucial concept that relates to Norma Rae because she understood the basic principle that without her or the other coworkers, the mill would not run. It would cost a lot more for the mill to hire eight hundred new workers than it would to supply them with higher wages or any other resources they needed. An example of Norma Rae demonstrating her power is when she was copying down one of the company notices on the bulletin board. She refused the orders of her direct superiors and ultimately stood her ground until she was able to get what she wanted. Unlike the late 90s, workers today realize their power and understand that companies need them which ultimately correlates to better working conditions. However, there are still plenty of issues within large corporations that are left unattended due to long standing bureaucratic rules.

In conclusion, the film titled Norma Rae depicts a restrictive and authoritarian bureaucracy that neglected its workers. Norma Rae believed in the power of a union and she refused to let gender inequality, racial discrimination, religious beliefs, and unjust labor laws get in the way of her getting better working conditions. Although she experienced multiple moments of failure, her efforts towards creating a union ultimately made an impact on her coworkers, the community, and the textile mill. Max Weber, Richard Edwards, and David Mechanic all maintained different outlooks that defined bureaucracies from multiple perspectives.

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