“Norma Rae”: A 38-year Retrospective

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THE PICKET-The Shepherdstown Film Society held a screening on Sept. 22 of the Academy Award winning film, “Norma Rae”.

The film tells the story of Norma Rae, a 31-year old woman whose family and neighbors work at a textile mill. The mill has no regulations or any form of minimum wage, that is, until Norma meets Reuben, a textile union organizer who wishes to take on unionizing the mill

The film is based on the life of Crystal Lee Sutton, who worked as a towel folder for $2.65 an hour at the J.P Stevens Mill in North Carolina. Alongside a union organizer, Eli Zivkovich, Sutton encouraged fellow mill workers to unionize the mill.

“Management treated me as if I had leprosy,” Sutton said. She received multiple threats from unknown sources, all before being forced to quit her job. But Sutton wasn’t finished yet. She had to make one last stand. A stand that is copied verbatim in Norma Rae.

“I took a piece of cardboard and wrote the word UNION on it in big letters,” Sutton said, adding she “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.”

After her sign of protest, Sutton was removed from the plant by police. However, it was too late. Because of her protest, mill workers collaborated with The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU)., unionizing the J.P. Stevens Mill for good.

In 1977, Sutton was given back her position, along with an improved income and less working hours. The film, Norma Rae, was released two years later. Sutton continued working, publishing multiple articles in the New York Times. She continued working with the ACTWU until her death on Sept. 11,  2009.

In her honor, The Crystal Lee Sutton Awards were established to honor those who preserve and protect the lives of working class people.

To this day, the textile industry is the least unionized industry in America. With only 1.9 percent of North Carolina textile mills under union supervision.