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A Piece of Unionizing History

Updated on November 10, 2014

The Real Norma Rae

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Crystal Lee Sutton: Unionizing the Textile Industry

Crystal Lee Sutton was a pivotal PERSON advocating with the labor right’s movement, and she happened to be a woman. In stating that she happened to be a woman, the writer is in no way attempting to downplay her impact of the proletariat’s advancement in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. This statement is simply meant to emphasize that Sutton’s focus was on making life more prosperous for all people, and women happened to be members of that assemblage.

Sutton worked folding towels for J.P. Stevens in the 1970s, and made a wage of $2.65 an hour. She observed the intolerable working conditions around her and vowed to do something about them. Along with the union organizer, Eli Zivkovich, she ventured to unionize the company. Sutton recalled the time and remembered, “Management and others treated me as if I had leprosy” (Sutton). Sutton was threatened and fired, a sacrifice made for the good of all, for eventually the company did unionize based on her diligent efforts, “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).

Norma Rae is a depiction of the valiant efforts Crystal Lee Sutton made to unionize the textile industry. In the film, Norma (Sutton) is a lot less concerned with whether she is a woman or not and is more concerned with the community in which she resides. Her boss tells her that she has “strayed off the reservation” (Norma Rae) meaning she has overstepped her bounds as a woman. Her husband tells her that her efforts to unionize the textile plant are interfering with her expected wifely duties at home. He asserts that the children’s clothes are not clean, and most of all, his needs are being neglected. Her boss tells her that she is always complaining about something at the plant and that she never shuts up, affirming the nagging woman stereotype usually attributed to outspoken women on behalf of chauvinists. Her husband tells her that she has overstepped her bounds in communing with black men, and she explicitly lets him know that her troubles have always been with white men, meaning the rich white men running the town who are at the forefront of the power structure.

When taking gender and socioeconomic status into account, Norma is a woman who is born into a poor community whose stability actually lies in the metaphorical hand of the textile plant because it generates an abundance of jobs in the small community. Norma becomes a single mother at a young age, and the circumstance in which she lives forces her to use other forms of trade as capital. For instance, if one watches the entire film, one sees that Norma uses sex as a form of trade to survive in such a community. Throughout the film, one also witnesses the politics of class struggle in everyday life because those in power have gained it via the monetary value of what they own or manage, the plant, and fail to see that the workers are the plant until the workers threaten to shut their labor down. In terms of gender roles, Norma is a positive light because in her world there is no need to assert that she is a “woman” (not that there would have been anything wrong with doing so) although she knows it. She leaves the debate over whether she is “worthy” as a woman to others and stays the course to fight for ALL who encompass the community’s proletariat. In staying the course and proving victorious, she demonstrates feminine wisdom and power without intention.

Norma Rae. Dir. Martin Ritt. By Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank. Perf. Sally Field, Beau Bridges, and Ron Leibman. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp., 1979.

Sutton, Crystal L. “Alamance Community College: Crystal Sutton Collection: The Real Norma Rae.” Alamance Community College: Crystal Sutton Collection: The Real

Norma Rae. N.p., 2008. Web. 23 Nov. 2014. http://www.crystalleesutton.com/about.html.

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