By KATE MOSTACCIO
A young woman walks to a work table, writes “UNION” on a piece of cardboard, climbs atop the table, and holds the sign aloft for the whole floor of workers to see. One by one, the workers shut down their noisy machines — demonstrating their solidarity with the woman.
The scene played across movie theater screens in 1979 in the film “Norma Rae” and the role of Norma Rae won actress Sally Fields an Oscar, a Golden Globe and the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festival.
But was this iconic scene fact or fiction?
It was fact and it did happen. The movie was based on the story of Crystal Lee Sutton, a 33-year-old woman who worked at the J.P. Stevens Plant in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., where she made $2.65 an hour folding towels.
Faced with poor working conditions, Sutton joined forces with Eli Zivkovich, a union organizer, and attempted to unionize J.P. Stevens employees. Her efforts gained her threats and eventual termination from her job.
As police escorted her from the building, Sutton took a final stand. That stand atop the table became one of the most well-known labor history moments on film. “I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word UNION on it in big letters, got up on my work table, and slowly turned it around. The workers started cutting their machines off and giving me the victory sign. All of a sudden the plant was very quiet …” Sutton stated, according to information in the Alamance Community College Crystal Lee Sutton Collection.
In an interview with Grace Bardsley, also part of the collection at Alamance, Sutton said, “I joined the union on Mother’s Day in 1973 and on the 31st day of that month I was fired. … They never said why they fired me. But the reason they fired me was to use me as an example to the other workers: ‘You will do what I say, you will not have anything to do with this union, because if you do, we will fire you.’
“If you see the movie Norma Rae, as far as the union struggle goes, this is true to life as it could be…. Not Sally Field in the room with the organizer eating a banana and drinking a beer, no, that wasn’t me. … But to watch the movie, when it comes to the real part [is] about organizing and Sally and Ron going from house to house and other workers trying to get people to sign union cards and succeeding. And succeeding is what I was doing,” she is quoted as saying.
Her actions paid off — winning the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) the right to represent the workers at the plant and launching Sutton into the labor activism spotlight. A court awarded Sutton back pay and her job, to which she returned for two days, before becoming a speaker on behalf of the ACTWU.
Sutton died on Sept. 11, 2009 after a long illness.
For more information about Sutton’s union activities, visit the Alamance Community College Collection or read about her in the 1975 book by New York Times reporter Henry “Hank” Leifermann, “Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance,” which was the basis for the “Norma Rae” film.
The Janus Decision — A Threat to Unions
On June 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court in the Janus v. AFSCME case overturned a precedent that for more than 40 years had recognized the ability of unions to collect “fair share” or “agency” fees to compensate the union for bargaining contracts and providing other services. There was a genuine fear that unions, including PEF, would lose members in the aftermath of this decision.
Sutton’s story reminds us of the struggles and hard fights ordinary workers waged to unionize their workplaces and gain fair wages and working conditions. PEF’s strength and determination helped the union weather the Janus storm (See article), but if you haven’t already, take a moment to take your stand and reaffirm your commitment to keep PEF Union Strong.
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