[Marxism] Crystal Lee Sutton, the Real-Life ‘Norma Rae,’ Is Dead at 68

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 15 09:51:02 MDT 2009

NY Times, September 15, 2009
Crystal Lee Sutton, the Real-Life ‘Norma Rae,’ Is Dead at 68

Crystal Lee Sutton, the union organizer whose real-life stand on her 
worktable at a textile factory in North Carolina in 1973 was the 
inspiration for the Academy Award-winning movie “Norma Rae,” died Friday 
in Burlington, N.C. She was 68.

The cause was brain cancer, her son Jay Jordan said.

Ms. Sutton (then Crystal Lee Jordan) was a 33-year-old mother of three 
earning $2.65 an hour folding towels at the J. P. Stevens plant in 
Roanoke Rapids, N.C., when she took her stand. Low pay and poor working 
conditions had impelled her to take a leading role in efforts to 
unionize the plant. She was met with threats, she said.

“Management and others treated me as if I had leprosy,” she later said 
in an interview for Alamance Community College, in Graham, N.C., which 
she attended in the 1980s.

After months trying to organize co-workers, Ms. Sutton was fired. When 
the police, summoned by the management, came to take her away, she made 
one last act of defiance.

“I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word ‘union’ on it in big 
letters, got up on my worktable, and slowly turned it around,” she said 
in the interview. “The workers started cutting their machines off and 
giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet.”

Within a year, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union had 
won the right to represent 3,000 employees at seven plants in Roanoke 
Rapids, including J. P. Stevens, which was then the second-largest 
textile manufacturer in the country.

In 1977, a court ordered that Ms. Sutton be rehired and receive back 
wages. She returned to work for two days, then quit and went to work as 
an organizer for the union.

For legal reasons, Ms. Sutton’s name was not used in the 1979 movie 
“Norma Rae,” for which Sally Field won the Oscar for best actress, a 
Golden Globe and the best-actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, all 
in 1980.

Bruce Raynor, who is now president of Workers United and executive vice 
president of the Service Employees International Union, worked with Ms. 
Sutton in her organizing career.

In a statement on Monday, he said, “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.”

Crystal Lee Pulley was born in Roanoke Rapids on Dec. 31, 1940, a 
daughter of Albert and Odell Blythe Pulley. Both her parents worked in 
the mills and, starting in her late teens, so did she.

Ms. Sutton’s first marriage, to Larry Jordan Jr., ended in divorce. 
Besides her son Jay, she is survived by her husband of 32 years, Lewis 
Sutton Jr.; two daughters, Elizabeth Watts and Renee Jordan; two other 
sons, Mark Jordan and Eric Sutton; two sisters, Geraldine Greeson and 
Syretha Medlin; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

After more than a decade as a union organizer, Ms. Sutton earned 
certification as a nursing assistant from Alamance Community College in 
1988. In later years, she ran a day care center in her home.

Jay Jordan said his mother kept a photograph of Ms. Field, in the 
climactic scene from “Norma Rae,” on her living room wall.

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