The saga of the real-life “Norma Rae” came to an end September 18, when Crystal Lee Sutton, the woman on whom the classic 1979 movie was based, died in Burlington, North Carolina, of brain cancer, at the age of 68.
It was Sutton who, in 1973, attempted to get the employees of the J.P. Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., to join the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America [which later merged with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union to create the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), which later merged with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) to create the new union, UNITE HERE.]
Not only were Sutton and her fellow employees earning a meager $2.65 per hour, but the working conditions in the mill—the safety standards, hours of work, bathroom breaks—qualified the facility as “sweat shop.” With no union to represent them, they were completely at the mercy of J.P. Stevens management. Sutton recognized this predicament and took it upon herself to remedy it.
When you consider the Deep South’s history of anti-unionism (to this day, North Carolina, Sutton’s home state, still has the nation’s lowest ratio of union workers, with 3.5 percent), the odds facing this woman were staggering. Ostracized by both hourly and salaried employees, and made the target of taunts, ridicule, insults and even death threats, Sutton nevertheless persisted, holding rallies, disseminating union literature, urging her fellow workers to join up.
She failed. Although many of the mill’s workers were sympathetic to her cause, they were simply too frightened—too fearful of losing their jobs—to throw in with her. The company openly gloated at the lack of support. Then, in retaliation for her union activities, J.P. Stevens abruptly fired Sutton and ordered her to leave the premises. They were done with her. She’d not only been defeated, she’d been disgraced.
But, incredibly, Sutton refused to leave the building. She wouldn’t budge. Uncertain of what to do next, the company called in the police to have her forcibly removed from the mill. But before they arrived Sutton wrote the word “UNION” on a placard, stood atop her work table and held the sign above her head. The spontaneous act was an astonishing show of defiance.
What happened next was memorably depicted in the award-winning 1979 film, “Norma Rae” (with Sally Field playing Sutton). The scene still brings chills to anyone who’s ever rooted for the little guy or ever dreamed of defying authority with a dramatic and heroic gesture. As Sutton held the sign over her head and slowly turned so all could see it, one by one, her fellow employees, inspired by her courage, began shutting off their machines.
One by one, and in absolute defiance of company policy—indeed, shutting down equipment without permission was (and still is) grounds for immediate termination—the entire operation came to a halt. As Sutton later recounted in an interview: “The workers started cutting their machines and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was dead quiet.”
It had a happy ending. Less than a year later, Amalgamated Clothing won the right to represent approximately 3,000 employees at seven textile plants in Roanoke Rapids, including the virulently anti-union J. P. Stevens, which was then the second-largest textile manufacturer in the country.
Moreover, in 1977, a court ruled that Sutton had been fired illegally (violation of the Wagner Act) and she was reinstated with full back pay. Anticlimactically, Sutton quit the job a mere two days later and joined on as a union organizer for the same union who represented her plant. She eventually left the organizing field, entered community college, earned certification as a nurse’s assistant, and finished her career running a day care center in her home.
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Back when I was a labor union rep, we were aware of the unique role women played in the labor movement. It’s not information union officials (men) generally volunteer, but if you were to ask one to answer truthfully, he would tell you that women activists have a powerful effect on their male peers. Women who take bold, radical stands tend to shame the men into going along with them. What man wants to appear weak, especially around women?
Consider: Calling a strike is usually more about guts than brains. Finding a good reason for going on strike isn’t the hard part; in fact, it’s generally pretty easy. The hard part is not talking yourself out of it once you’ve found a reason. It’s having the courage to follow through, even though it’s going require tremendous sacrifice.
Accordingly, when women union members show they have the guts and determination to do something radical, something dangerous, it’s going to affect the men. It’s going to gnaw at them. It’s going to put men in the unenviable position of either going along with these defiant women, or staring down in horror as their gonads shrivel.
Crystal Lee Sutton was a genuine hero. She will forever be remembered as one of the champions of organized labor, right up there with the Joe Hills, Bill Haywoods and Emma Goldmans. Rest in peace, Crystal Lee. You earned it.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Larva Boy,” “Americana”) and writer, was a former union rep. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org