Norma Rae, Ted Kennedy and the Employee Free Choice Act

Leo Gerard, United Steelworkers President

Sally Field portraying Crystal Lee Sutton in the film Norma Rae.

Norma Rae and Teddy Kennedy are dead.

Well, the woman on whom the 1979 Academy Award-winning movie Norma Rae was based – Crystal Lee Sutton – died Sept. 12. Sen. Kennedy died just weeks earlier on Aug. 25

Brain cancer felled both iconic labor heroes.

It was a hell of a start to the AFL-CIO’s 26th Constitutional Convention in Pittsburgh this weekend. 

Caroline Kennedy stood in for her uncle Monday, telling the delegates she’d promised to speak on his behalf. She asked the delegates to devote themselves to the labor struggles to which Sen. Kennedy had dedicated his life, one of which was the Employee Free Choice Act. 

Passage of the act, which would ease union organizing and completing first contracts, would definitely be a cause for celebration by industrial organizations and federations of labor.

Crystal Lee Sutton’s story reinforces why it’s vital Congress pass the act. 

At age 17, she began working for a J.P. Stevens textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., where conditions and pay were poor. 

In the early 1970s, labor organizer Eli Zivkovich moved to Roanoke Rapids and enlisted her help to establish a union at the mill. By then, she was 33, had three children, and was earning $2.65 an hour. To try to convince co-workers to form a union to bargain for improvements, Sutton walked door-to-door and went to work early. 

When I went in the plant with my union pin, you would have thought I had the plague and that is when the trouble started. It was truly different because a woman had never done or dared to do such stuff,” Sutton said in a June, 2008 interview. 

A manager fired her when she copied a flyer put up by the mill that claimed black workers would run the union.

Before she left that day, Sutton took a stand that was recounted verbatim in the film, Norma Rae, in which Sally Fields starred. 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,” she said.

Police physically removed Sutton from the mill. But the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) won the right to represent the workers. That’s what people remember from the film. A great victory. What they don’t know is that J.P. Stevens officials didn’t sign a labor contract with the union until a decade later.

That’s why the Employee Free Choice Act must pass. Not only do companies threaten, harass and illegally fire workers like Sutton who try to form unions, but even when workers finally do win union representation, corporations wrongly hold up negotiations to deny workers their first labor contract – as J. P. Stevens did. 

In that case, the workers won on both counts. They ultimately got a labor contract – a decade later, and in 1977 a court-ordered Stevens to pay Sutton back wages and restore her job. 

But in far too many cases, workers win on no counts. They never get to organize because of aggressive and illegal actions used with impunity by corporations that hire union-busting consultants. 

That is tragic for America because good union wages were critical to creating and are crucial to sustaining the nation’s middle class. 

Teddy Kennedy, a rich man who spent his career legislating for the working man, once said, I say you spell Kennedy L‑A-B-O‑R.” Caroline Kennedy said yesterday, It is time to make the dreams of Teddy Kennedy’s career a reality.”

She urged the AFL-CIO delegates to do as Dr. Martin Luther King summoned striking sanitation workers in Memphis to do just before his death: Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge, to make America what it ought to be.”

For Kennedy, for Sutton, for us all, America ought to have the Employee Free Choice Act.

Leo Gerard is international president of the United Steelworkers Union, part of the AFL-CIO. The son of a union miner; Gerard started working at a nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario, at age 18, and rose through the union’s ranks to be appointed the seventh international president Feb. 28, 2001. For more information about Gerard, visit usw​.org.
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