Union organizer inspired film ‘Norma Rae’
Crystal Lee Sutton, whose defiance of factory bosses invigorated a long-running battle to unionize Southern mill workers and formed the dramatic heart of the Academy Award-winning movie “Norma Rae,” died Sept. 11 in Burlington, N.C. She was 68.
The cause was brain cancer, said her son, Jay Jordan.
In 1973, Sutton worked at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. Fed up with the poor pay and working conditions, she joined the Textile Workers Union of America and became an organizer whose activism quickly earned the wrath of management.
Moments after being fired, she wrote “UNION” on a piece of cardboard, climbed onto a table in the middle of the factory floor and raised the sign for co-workers to see. Stunned by her courage, they switched off their machines and focused on the 33-year-old mother of three who earned $2.65 an hour.
Some raised their fingers in a V for victory, but a union contract was still years away.
The victory that day was over fear.
“Stand up for what you believe in, no matter how hard it makes life for you,” Sutton, reflecting on her iconic protest, told the Burlington Times News last year. “Do not give up, and always say what you believe.”
Her rebellion inspired one of the most memorable scenes in cinematic history, when it was reenacted by actress Sally Field in an Oscar-winning performance in “Norma Rae” (1979).
Sutton was “a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and, without doubt, on me personally,” Field said in a statement after Sutton died. “Portraying Crystal Lee in ‘Norma Rae,’ however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being.”
Born Crystal Lee Pulley in Roanoke Rapids on Dec. 31, 1940, Sutton was a self- described “lint head” whose parents and grandparents had been textile workers. At 17, she was working the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift at J.P. Stevens, reloading the fast-moving looms with shuttles of yarn.
“I remember my first day. It was so noisy in there and it was so dusty that I got to crying because I couldn’t hear. And I felt like I had gotten all stopped up from the lint, so we went to the bathroom to eat our supper,” she recalled in the book “Hard Times Cotton Mill Girls” by Victoria Byerly.
The first in her family to graduate from high school, Sutton was married at 19, had a child at 20, was widowed before she was 21 and gave birth to a child out of wedlock at 22. She subsequently remarried and had a third child at 25.
In 1972, after a series of waitressing and sewing jobs, she returned to J.P. Stevens to work in a unit that boxed gift towels. She had been on the job about five months when she went to her first union meeting. Soon she was sporting a union pin, and the trouble began.
She was called repeatedly to the front office on minor infractions. (“Talking too much, standing in the bathroom too much,” she told Byerly.) Every time she was called in, she was armed with a book that union organizer Eli Zivkovich gave her, called “What the Company Will Do for You.” The pages were blank. She used the book to take notes on her bosses’ complaints, which, she said, “blew the boss men’s mind. They couldn’t believe I was doing this.”
On May 30, 1973, she stood in front of a bulletin board copying management’s anti-union letter that alleged the union would be mostly made up of African Americans. A slew of managers told Sutton to stop but she ignored them all, folded up her copy of the letter and stashed it inside her bra, “figuring, well, nobody will get it down there.”
She was fired.
When she went back on the floor to gather her belongings, she asked a co-worker for a marking pen. She told Byerly what happened next: “I grabbed it and I took a piece of pasteboard and I wrote the word UNION on it and, for some reason, I don’t know why I did it, I climbed on the table and I just slowly turned the sign around. Everybody was in a state of shock and the machines started shutting down and everything got quiet. People started giving me the V sign.”
Then the police chief arrived and took her, kicking and screaming, to jail.
The following year, 1974, the union won the right to represent 3,000 textile workers at seven plants in Roanoke Rapids, including J.P. Stevens. “Crystal’s bravery had helped to secure this victory,” the first big union victory at a Stevens plant, said historian Timothy Minchin, an authority on labor’s long campaign there.
In 1978, Sutton won reinstatement to her job and received $13,000 in back wages, but returned to work for only two days because she was by then living in another town.
In 1980, she went on a speaking tour of 19 cities that generated mostly positive coverage of the union fight, which was concentrated on a national boycott of Stevens’ products. In October of that year, the textile giant finally signed a union contract.
Sutton’s union activities strained her marriage to her second husband, Larry Jordan Jr.; it ended in divorce. She is survived by her third husband, Lewis Sutton Jr.; three children; two stepchildren; two sisters; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
Her heroism inspired the book “Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance” (1975), by Henry P. Leifermann. “Norma Rae” was based on the book.
Citing concerns over historical accuracy, Sutton pressed for approval rights over the script but lost her bid and refused to allow the producers to use her name in the film. She later sued and received a small settlement but not enough to make her rich. Her husband held two jobs and she worked in various low-wage positions, including as a maid and a security guard, until her health began to deteriorate.
“It is not necessary I be remembered as anything,” she told the Burlington paper last year, “but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world.”