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.”
Raynor said Sutton was also a symbol of the national health care struggle. In a June 2008 interview with The Times-News of Burlington, Sutton said she couldn’t get possible life-saving medicines for two months because her insurance company wouldn’t cover them. She eventually received the drugs.
“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.”
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.”