THE BLOG
11/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Crystal Lee Sutton, the Real "Norma Rae," Was a Fighter to the End

Our nation has lost a great hero and champion of working people. Crystal Lee Sutton was a courageous woman who stood up for herself and her coworkers under the most difficult circumstances. She was an inspiration to organizers in this union and beyond, particularly Southern women who went on to lead their own campaigns after learning from her example.

It's well known that Crystal's story was the inspiration for the academy award winning 1979 film Norma Rae, but I wish more people knew the real story of Crystal Lee Sutton and her co-workers, and the strength and honor they showed as they fought to organize the textile giant JP Stevens. They stood up and proved that workers in the South could organize and change their jobs and their lives against all odds--across racial lines, and over the objections of anti-worker companies.

For decades, JP Stevens called the shots in Roanoke Rapid, N.C., paying poverty wages and offering deplorably unsafe working conditions. Workers routinely lost fingers, inhaled cotton dust, and lost hearing due to the deafening drone of machinery. JP Stevens was so vehemently anti-union that it systematically purchased small unionized textile mills in the south only to close them down. But as determined as JP Stevens was to keep its workers down, Crystal Lee Sutton was even more determined to lift them up and bring them a union.

Sutton knew that she and her co-workers deserved more out of their employer, and in 1973 she found a way to bring that change when she agreed to help organize the plant with the assistance of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) and its lead organizer, Eli Zivkovich.

JP Stevens mounted the most vigorously hostile union-busting efforts ever seen in US history, amounting in over 122 unfair labor practice findings. But Sutton could not be deterred and at the end of a 10-year boycott, the 3,000 workers at JP Stevens won their 17-year fight with a strong contract.

She fought her whole life for working people, and as she fought cancer, she continued to be an advocate for the needs of working people. Once again, Crystal's story is of both an extraordinary woman and of every woman. Like so many other working families, after a lifetime of paying premiums her health insurance failed her. She took her challenges head on, and never stopped fighting for what was right. While she fought cancer she spoke out about the struggle she had with the health care system and the toll it was taking on her family.

Crystal Lee Sutton is an inspiration to every worker who holds out hope and is prepared to fight for justice and respect at work. Our condolences go to her family, but they should know that we will not forget her, and she continues to inspire our union and workers throughout the world.