It's the death of an American icon, a working-class woman who stood up for her rights and unionized her workplace. And wouldn't you know it? She fou
September 14, 2009


It's the death of an American icon, a working-class woman who stood up for her rights and unionized her workplace. And wouldn't you know it? She fought the mills, but she couldn't make her insurance company do the decent thing until it was too late:

The woman whose life inspired the 1979 film Norma Rae has died of cancer after struggling with her health insurance company, which had delayed her treatment.

Crystal Lee Sutton was 68. She had struggled for several years with meningioma, a form of brain cancer.

She became a hero to the labor movement in the 1970s, when she took on her employer, a North Carolina textile plant, and unionized the factory floor. Her story became famous nationwide in 1975 after New York Times reporter Hank Leiferman wrote Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance.

In 1979, her story was turned into the movie Norma Rae, a thinly-veiled fictional adaptation of Sutton’s struggle to unionize the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Sally Field won an Oscar for her portrayal of the character inspired by Sutton.

As Daily Kos blogger hissyspit points out, last year Sutton gave an interview to the press where she described a struggle with her health insurer over treatment. The Times-News in Burlington, North Carolina, wrote in 2008:

[Sutton] went two months without possible life-saving medications because her insurance wouldn’t cover it, another example of abusing the working poor, she said.

“How in the world can it take so long to find out (whether they would cover the medicine or not) when it could be a matter of life or death,” she said. “It is almost like, in a way, committing murder.”

She eventually received the medication, but the cancer is taking a toll on her strong will and solid frame.

In 2008, the North Carolina branch of the AFL-CIO urged supporters to donate money to Sutton’s medical fund. On its Web site, the union had stated that “after initially being denied coverage by her insurance company for life saving treatment, Sutton is now on drug and chemo therapies and has undergone two surgeries.”

In its obituary the Greensboro News-Record describes her now-legendary struggle to unionize the J.P. Stevens plant:

In 1973, a 33-year-old Sutton was working at the J.P. Stevens plant in Roanoke Rapids, where she was making $2.65 an hour folding towels. The poor working conditions she and her fellow employees endured compelled her to join forces with Eli Zivkovich, a mill worker turned union organizer, and attempt to unionize the plant employees.

Sutton eventually lost her job, but the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) won the right to represent the workers at the plant and Sutton briefly became an organizer for the union.

In 1977, she was awarded back wages and her job was reinstated by court order, although she chose to return to work for just two days.

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