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