Crystal Lee Sutton: Labor Heroine

Norma RaeCrystal Lee Sutton, originally of Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, died of cancer September 12 at the age of 68. She was instrumental in the 10-year fight to unionize the J.P. Stevens mill, where she once worked for $2.65/hr.

You may remember her as “Norma Rae”, as portrayed by actor Sally Field in the Oscar-winning film of 1979.

Crystal moved on from the J.P. Stevens mill after becoming an organizer for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union; she eventually returned to school and graduated from Alamance Community College, who maintains her records of the organizing battle and a website about her life. She was initially denied coverage by her insurance company for treatment for her cancer; her husband worked two jobs to help pay for her medical care. The North Carolina State AFL-CIO is also accepting donations for her medical bills.

“It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world.” –Crystal Lee Sutton

Rest in peace, Sister. Lu Lutta Continua.

headnod: Uniongal

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4 comments for “Crystal Lee Sutton: Labor Heroine

  1. September 14, 2009 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks so much for this. I hadn’t known. The most appropriate tribute I can think of is (as is so often the case) the lyrics of Joe Hill (for those that don’t know Joe Hill was a Wobbly Union organiser who was put to death.):

    I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
    Alive as you or me
    Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
    “I never died,” says he

    “In Salt Lake, Joe,” says I to him,
    Him standing by my bed,
    “They framed you on a murder charge,”
    Says Joe, “But I ain’t dead,”

    “The copper bosses killed you, Joe,
    They shot you, Joe,” says I.
    “Takes more than guns to kill a man,”
    Says Joe, “I didn’t die,”

    And standing there as big as life
    And smiling with his eyes
    Joe says, “What they forgot to kill
    Went on to organize,

    “Joe Hill ain’t dead,” he says to me,
    “Joe Hill ain’t never died.
    Where working people go out on strike
    Joe Hill is at their side,

    “From San Diego up to Maine,
    In every mine and mill,
    Where workers strike and organize,”
    Says he, “You’ll find Joe Hill,”

    I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
    Alive as you or me
    Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
    “I never died,” says he

  2. September 14, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    I just saw Norma Rae for the first time a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say, I cried and cried and cried all through the seminal scene. It was so powerful to see her character arc, to see her stand up for herself, her coworkers, for what was right. So powerful.

  3. September 14, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    Crystal Lee Sutton has always been an inspiration to us human rights, immigrant and labor activists. She’ll be dearly missed. I hope union workers come together across the country and observe a day to remember Crystal.

  4. September 16, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    This just breaks my heart. I saw a documentary about her on public TV, before the movie NORMA RAE ever came out. She was so much more beautiful than Sally Field in the movie version, if you can imagine.

    :( Ohh, Crystal. My novenas for your most holy soul. ((sobs)) RIP, dear one.

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