[Marxism] Crystal Lee Sutton [Norma Rae] passes -- and Poverty Wars and Seeds of Labor Unionism
hunterbadbear at hunterbear.org
Tue Sep 15 05:32:28 MDT 2009
Note by Hunter Bear:
Sad news. But Crystal Lee Sutton lives on in her good works -- and in the very fine film, Norma Rae. The labor struggle in which she played such a key role, and on which the film is based, involved J.P. Stevens Textile at Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. And Roanoke Rapids is in Halifax County, one of the several hard-core segregationist, poverty stricken and Klan-ridden Northeastern North Carolina Black Belt counties in which we conducted a very long and hard-fought and successful civil rights struggle. Early on, we distributed union publications in conjunction with our primary civil rights materials. When we had our periodic multi-county grassroots conferences, we always had, among our speakers, a representative from an International Union.
So we sowed union seeds as we moved along on the civil rights front. Took awhile in some cases but in time they sprouted. This is a paragraph from one of our Hunterbear website pages: Poverty Wars and the Seeds of Labor Unionism:
"In the northern part of our old battlefield, Halifax County, lay the town of
Roanoke Rapids -- dominated by the huge and perennially anti-union J.P.
Stevens textile mill. The success of our civil rights organizing broke the
atmosphere of fear which pervaded the entire region -- including Roanoke
Rapids; and our consistent linkage of civil rights with democratic
interracial unionism and our continual distribution of union literature
across the entire Black-Belt and environs -- and very much at Roanoke
Rapids -- quite effectively sowed and nourished the seeds of militant
unionism which began to take root and materialize. And these were the seeds
that led eventually, in the early 1970s, to the unionization of J.P.
Stevens Textile at Roanoke Rapids. [And that, by the way, was the
situational setting for the excellent 1979 labor film, Norma Rae.]"
Inspiration for movie 'Norma Rae' dies at 68
Labor organizer succumbed to long battle with brain cancer
The Associated Press
updated 3:52 p.m. MT, Mon., Sept . 14, 2009
RALEIGH, North Carolina - Crystal Lee Sutton, whose fight to unionize Southern textile plants with low pay and poor conditions was dramatized in the film "Norma Rae," has died. She was 68.
Sutton died Friday in a hospice after a long battle with brain cancer, her son, Jay Jordan, said Monday.
"She fought it as long as she could and she crossed on over to her new life," he said.
Actress Sally Field portrayed a character based on Sutton in the movie and won a best-actress Academy Award.
Field said in a statement Sutton was "a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally. Portraying Crystal Lee Sutton in 'Norma Rae,' however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being."
In 1973, Sutton was a 33-year-old mother of three earning $2.65 an hour folding towels at J.P. Stevens when a manager fired her for pro-union activity.
In a final act of defiance before police hauled her out, Sutton, who had worked at the plant for 16 years, wrote "UNION" on a piece of cardboard and climbed onto a table on the plant floor. Other employees responded by shutting down their machines.
Union organizers had targeted J.P. Stevens, then the country's second-largest textile manufacturer, because the industry was deeply entwined in Southern culture and spread across the region's small towns. However, North Carolina continues to have one of the lowest percentages of unionized workers in the country.
Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United and executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, worked with Sutton to organize the Stevens plants. In 1974, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union won the right to represent 3,000 employees at seven Roanoke Rapids plants in northeastern North Carolina.
"Crystal was an amazing symbol of workers standing up in the South against overwhelming odds - and standing up and winning," Raynor said Monday. "The fact that Crystal was a woman in the '70s, leading a struggle of thousands of other textile workers against very powerful, virulently anti-union mill companies, inspired a whole generation of people - of women workers, workers of color and white workers."
Raynor said Sutton was also a symbol of the national health care struggle. In a June 2008 interview with The Times-News of Burlington, Sutton said she couldn't get possible life-saving medicines for two months because her insurance company wouldn't cover them. She eventually received the drugs.
"How in the world can it take so long to find out (whether they would cover the medicine or not) when it could be a matter of life or death," she said. "It is almost like, in a way, committing murder."
Sutton's son said his mother kept a photo of Field in the movie's climactic scene on her living room wall at her home in Burlington, about 20 miles east of Greensboro. But despite what many people think, she got little profit from the movie or an earlier book written about her, he said.
"When they find out she lived very, very modestly, even poorly, in Burlington, they're surprised," he said.
Jordan said his mother spent years as a labor organizer in the 1970s. She later became a certified nursing assistant in 1988 but had not been able to work for several years because of illnesses.
"She never would have been rich. She would have given it to anyone she called the working class poor, people that were deprived," Jordan said.
Sutton donated her letters and papers to Alamance Community College in 2007. She said: "I didn't want them to go to some fancy university; I wanted them to go to a college that served the ordinary folks."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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