Crystal Lee Sutton, Dead at 68: Union Activist Inspired 'Norma Rae'

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the Associated Press

Crystal Lee Sutton, Dead at 68: Union Activist Inspired 'Norma Rae'

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Textile factory worker Crystal Lee Sutton pauses during an interview in Los Angeles March 15, 1980. Sutton died Friday in Burlington, N.C. She was 68. As a representative of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile union, she struggled to organize workers at the J.P. Stevens company. The movie "Norma Rae" was based on her story. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

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."

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."

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