The Inspiration for the Film

“She was a true heroine of the working class” — Sally Field, on Crystal Lee Sutton, the real “Norma Rae.”


Crystal Lee Sutton, the inspiration for the 1979 film, Norma Rae, was simply an average American textile mill worker in the South until her activities with labor unions garnered her national fame and more importantly, her being fired from the J.P. Stevens plant became of her unionizing efforts.

Sutton worked at the Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina earning $2.65 an hour folding towels. She joined forces with Eli Zivkovich, a local union organizer, to try to combat the atrocious working conditions she and the other mill workers faced day in and day out. But working with Zivkovich had its consequences; Sutton received numerous threats and ultimately, was fired from her job. Before leaving the plant, Sutton took her last stand, which in the film, was done verbatim. She wrote the word “union” on a piece of cardboard and stood atop a table. The other workers all cut off their machines and realized they had achieved a small victory.[2]

Even though Sutton was fired from her job, the plant still won rights to be represented by the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union on August 28, 1974. In 1977, Sutton’s job at the plant was reinstated and she was awarded $13,436 in back wages. In her fashion, she stayed at the plant for two weeks before taking her final stand against the J.P. Stevens; she quit.[3]

Even towards the end of her life, Sutton never slowed down, despite contracting meningioma, a type of brain cancer. She fought against her insurance company who delayed treatment for several years. Sutton died on September 11, 2009. As her cohort Zivkovich said, “Our nation lost a great hero and champion of working people. Crystal Lee Sutton was a courageous woman who stood up for herself and her coworkers under the most difficult circumstances. She . . . is an inspiration to every worker who holds out hope and is prepared to fight for justice and respect at work.”[4]


[1] Jobs with Justice. (2010) Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Crystal Lee Sutton. Retrieved October 30, 2010, from

[2] Sullivan, Patricia. 2009. Labor Unionizing Was Inspiration for “Norma Rae.” The Washington Post, (September 16). (accessed October 30, 2010).

[3] Leifermann, Henry. Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance. New  York: Macmillan, 1975.

[4] Ibid.

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