The woman who inspired "Norma Rae" has died | National Union of Public and General Employees

The woman who inspired "Norma Rae" has died

Crystal Lee Jordan Sutton, an activist to the end, has passed away from a brain tumor at age 68.

Crystal Lee Jordan Sutton, the woman who inspired Norma RaeOttawa (16 Sept. 2009) - Crystal Lee Jordan Sutton, the textile worker who inspired the 1979 movie Norma Rae, has died of a brain tumor at age 68.

The Oscar-winning film told the story of Sutton's courageous fight to unionize a Southern textile mill. She lived in Burlington, N.C., and had been battling her illness for more than two years, the Raleigh News and Observer reports.

Although Sutton did not get involved in the labour movement until southern manufacturing jobs had begun to decline, she remained a symbol of the struggle to improve working conditions and wages for mill workers long after the industry had been transformed.

She continued to tell the story of how she worked to organize employees at a J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids and what it cost her to be a part of the fight. She also advocated for women's rights, racial equality, the poor and – after doctors found a malignant tumor on her brain – equal access to medical treatment.

Syd Alexander, an attorney who represented Sutton, said she was true to her values throughout her life.

"She found a mission and a goal and she stayed with it," he told the newspaper. "She was not an articulate, polished speaker, but she was absolutely unabashed about telling her story and what she believed in. And she was such a natural, because the story was true."

The middle child of mill workers, Sutton was 17 when she first went to work in a mill in the late 1950s.

In 1973 a union organizer named Eli Zivkovich came to town, fresh from the coal fields of West Virginia. Zivkovich's passion for workers energized Sutton and she eventually began to encourage co-workers to learn what a union could do for them.

Crystal Lee Jordoan Sutton with a framed poster of Sally Field in Norma Rae

She was fired for her union activities but, before leaving the plant, she seized a piece of cardboard, wrote "UNION" on it, then climbed onto a cutting table in a noisy production room where she held the sign aloft, turning it slowly for all in the plant to see.

One by one, the workers responded by turning off their clattering machines, bringing production to a stop until police arrived to arrest her. Recreated later, the episode became the most memorable scene in the movie. Sally Field, who starred in the movie, won an Oscar for her role.

The plant closed in 2003, laying off its last 320 workers. Since 1977, North Carolina has lost more than 250,000 textile manufacturing jobs.


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE

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