Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Crystal Lee Sutton

Today’s WOD is Crystal Lee Sutton (December 31, 1940 – September 11, 2009) a working-class woman who stood up for her rights and unionized her workplace. She was the REAL Norma Rae. Crystal Lee Sutton is the woman on whom the Oscar winning movie Norma Rae was based. 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, North Carolina, 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 was only 17 when she began working at the J.P. Stevens plant in northeastern North Carolina, where conditions were poor and the pay was low. A Massachusetts-based company that for many years was listed on the Fortune 500, J.P. Stevens is now part of the WestPoint Home conglomerate. 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.

In 1973, Sutton, by then a mother of three, was earning only $2.65 an hour. Sutton knew that she and her co-workers deserved more out of their employer. That same year, Eli Zivkovich, a former coal miner from West Virginia, came to Roanoke Rapids to organize the plant and began working with Sutton, who was fired after she copied a flyer posted by management warning that blacks would run the union. It was that incident which led Sutton to Her last action at the plant -- writing the word "UNION" on a piece of cardboard and standing on her work table, leading her co-workers to turn off their machines in solidarity -- was memorialized in the 1979 film by actress Sally Field.

Sutton was physically removed from the plant by police, but the result of her actions was staggering.. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) won the right to represent the workers at the plant on Aug. 28, 1974 and Sutton became an organizer for the union. In 1977, Sutton was awarded back wages and her job was reinstated by court order, although she chose to return to work for just two days. She subsequently became a speaker on behalf of the ACTWU and was profiled in interviews on Good Morning America, in The New York Times Magazine, and countless other national and international publications during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Not only was Sutton the face and symbol of fighting for Labor Unions, at the end of her life she was the symbol of what can happen to people when the Corporate Greed of Insurance Companies run ramped. Several years ago, Sutton was diagnosed with meningioma, a type of cancer of the nervous system. While such cancers are typically slow-growing, Sutton's was not -- and she went two months without potentially life-saving medication because her insurance wouldn't cover it initially. Sutton told the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News last year that the insurer's behavior was an example of abuse of the working poor:

"How in the world can it take so long to find out [whether they would cover the medicine or not] when it could be a matter of life or death," she said. "It is almost like, in a way, committing murder."- Crystal Lee Sutton

Though Sutton eventually received the medication, the cancer had already taken hold. She passed away on Friday, Sept. 11 in a Burlington, N.C. hospice.

"Crystal Lee Sutton was a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally," Field said in a statement released Friday. "Portraying Crystal Lee in 'Norma Rae,' however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being."

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 her union and beyond, particularly Southern women who went on to lead their own campaigns after learning from her example.