Labor Organizer Crystal Lee Sutton Dies 68

A photo of Sally Fields in the movie
A photo of Sally Fields in the movie "Norma Rae" hangs in Crystal Lee Sutton's home in Burlington, N.C. (By Joseph Rodriguez -- Associated Press)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Crystal Lee Sutton, 68, a textile worker who rebelled against the low pay and poor conditions in a Southern mill to urge its workers to unionize and whose life inspired the film "Norma Rae," died of brain cancer Sept. 11 at a hospice in Burlington, N.C.

Ms. Sutton, a 33-year-old mother of three who earned $2.65 per hour folding towels at the J.P. Stevens textile plant, was fired in 1973 for her pro-union activity. Before the police hauled her off the factory floor, the 16-year veteran of the job wrote "UNION" on a piece of cardboard, climbed on to a table and slowly rotated so her fellow workers could see her protest.

Her colleagues responded by shutting down their machines, in defiance of management orders.

Actress Sally Field won the Academy Award for best actress playing a more glamorous version of Ms. Sutton in the 1979 movie "Norma Rae." Ms. Sutton, who kept a photo of the penultimate scene in her living room, laughed at other parts of the movie, particularly when Norma Rae goes skinny-dipping with the actor portraying an outside labor union activist.

"Isn't it a shame that we didn't have that much fun?" she asked the real-life labor organizer, Eli Zivkovich.

Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United and executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, worked with Ms. Sutton to organize plants owned by Stevens, then the country's second-largest textile manufacturer. In 1974, the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union won the right to represent 3,000 employees at seven Roanoke Rapids plants owned by Stevens in northeastern North Carolina.

"Our nation lost a great hero and champion of working people," he said in a statement. "Crystal Lee Sutton was a courageous woman who stood up for herself and her coworkers under the most difficult circumstances. She . . . is an inspiration to every worker who holds out hope and is prepared to fight for justice and respect at work."

Crystal Lee Pulley was born in Roanoke Rapids on Dec. 31, 1940, and started working at the age of 16. She had her first child at 19, was widowed at 20 and had a second child at 21. Her third child was born when she was 24. She made her own clothes and kept her own house clean, and that $2.65-an-hour job folding towels into gift boxes was the best one she ever had.

"My family had worked in textiles all my life. And my husband [Larry "Cookie" Jordan] worked at a unionized plant [a paper mill] and he had so much better benefits. He had four weeks paid vacation and my parents had one week paid vacation after 30 years," she told The Washington Post. "So I thought if the union had done that much for him, I wanted to have the same thing."

She went to a union meeting and became an activist. "Management and others treated me as if I had leprosy," she told Alamance Community College in Graham, N.C., where she donated her papers. "When I went in the plant with my union pin, you would have thought I had the plague and that is when the trouble started. It was truly different because a woman had never done or dared to do such stuff."

Author Hank Leiferman told her story in the 1975 book "Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance."

After being fired from J.P. Stevens, Ms. Sutton got a job in a fast-food fried chicken joint in a nearby town. After she was reinstated by a court order in 1977, winning back wages of $13,436, she went back for two days "just to prove a point" before she quit. The textile workers union hired her as a spokeswoman and organizer, a job she held for a decade. 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.

Her marriage to Jordan ended in divorce.

Survivors include her husband of 30 years, Lewis Preston Sutton Jr. of Burlington, N.C.; five children; two sisters; five grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

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