Facing South
Crystal Lee Sutton

Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatment

The North Carolina union organizer who was the inspiration for the movie "Norma Rae" died on Friday of brain cancer after a battle with her insurance company, which delayed her treatment. She was 68.

Crystal Lee Sutton, formerly Crystal Lee Jordan, was fired from her job folding towels at the J.P. Stevens textile plant in her hometown of Roanoke Rapids, N.C. for trying to organize a union in the early 1970s. Her last action at the plant -- writing the word "UNION" on a piece of cardboard and standing on her work table, leading her co-workers to turn off their machines in solidarity -- was memorialized in the 1979 film by actress Sally Field. The police physically removed Sutton from the plant for her action.

But her efforts ultimately succeeded, as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers won the right to represent the plant's employees on Aug. 28, 1974. Sutton later became a paid organizer for the union, which through a series of mergers became part of UNITE HERE before splitting off this year to form Workers United, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

Several years ago, Sutton was diagnosed with meningioma, a type of cancer of the nervous system. While such cancers are typically slow-growing, Sutton's was not -- and she went two months without potentially life-saving medication because her insurance wouldn't cover it initially. Sutton told the Burlington (N.C.) Times-News last year that the insurer's behavior was an example of abuse of the working poor:

"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."

Though Sutton eventually received the medication, the cancer had already taken hold. She passed away on Friday, Sept. 11 in a Burlington, N.C. hospice.

"Crystal Lee Sutton was a remarkable woman whose brave struggles have left a lasting impact on this country and without doubt, on me personally," Field said in a statement released Friday. "Portraying Crystal Lee in 'Norma Rae,' however loosely based, not only elevated me as an actress, but as a human being."

Field won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of the character based on Sutton. The film in turn was based on the 1975 book "Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance" by New York Times reporter Henry P. "Hank" Leiferman.

Sutton was only 17 when she began working at the J.P. Stevens plant in northeastern North Carolina, where conditions were poor and the pay was low. A Massachusetts-based company that for many years was listed on the Fortune 500, J.P. Stevens is now part of the WestPoint Home conglomerate.

In 1973, Sutton, by then a mother of three, was earning only $2.65 an hour. That same year, Eli Zivkovich, a former coal miner from West Virginia, came to Roanoke Rapids to organize the plant and began working with Sutton, who was fired after she copied a flyer posted by management warning that blacks would run the union. It was that incident which led Sutton to stand up with her "UNION" sign.

"It is not necessary I be remembered as anything, but I would like to be remembered as a woman who deeply cared for the working poor and the poor people of the U.S. and the world," she said in a newspaper interview last year. "That my family and children and children like mine will have a fair share and equality."

For more on Sutton's life and work, visit the website of the Alamance Community College's Crystal Sutton Collection.

(Photo of Sutton speaking in Minnesota in 1988 from the Crystal Sutton Collection.)

Image: 
Crystal Lee Sutton
Crystal Lee Sutton
Appreciate this post? Please donate & share below.
Reddit »

Tags:

Comments

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

So, where were all the unions, union people, and Hollywood elites when Crystal needed financial help with her medication? Guess they hadn't exploited her enough. Had they refrained from helping so they could make her a martyr to health care reform also.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

The North Carolina AFL-CIO contributed to and helped raise money for a fund created for Sutton's care.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Excellent point. Use and forget.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Rosie Archer, did you see the comment right under yours? The union DID support her during her illness. "Guessing" is not always the best way to get to the answer. And throwing out buzz phrases like "Hollywood elite" is never the best way to get to the answer. Find out what happened before opening your mouth, please.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Chris Estes, no it wasn't an excellent point, unless by "excellent point" you mean "point which was immediately debunked." Look at the next comment. The union DID support Sutton during her illness.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Director Martin Ritt and Oscar winner Sally Fields made gobs of money off "Norma Rae" and many union coffers were filled thanks to all the publicity. Yet this poor woman went 2 months with no medicine??? The unions may have contributed to the fund, but who set it up? If unionism is supposed to advance the worker in to a better economic status, why did this woman who did so much to cause the pockets of those more powerful than she to be lined end up spending her waning days in need of assistance?

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Insurance companies do not immediately deny coverage. Instead they deliberately delay a 'pending' decision (already decided), and the victim (patient) already sick has to continually call and following up anticipating positive response 'soon'

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

I'm an aussie and am totally perplexed that there is ANY debate over whether there should be universal health care - a basic human right - let alone the zany claims that it will result in a socialist or communist style system. What bollocks...only in the US would people march in the streets AGAINST universal healthcare...and an imagined debt and yet,ironically, do no such thing about Bush's immoral war, his attacking the constitution, blowing the budget, wasting trillions - not to mention taking away hard won liberties and civil rights, condoning torture, stealing an election and forever ruining the reputation of a proud nation...etc.
I love the US and Americans and hope that y'all see the light before it's too late. If folks are worried about future debt then they should ALL be for radical health care reform as without it the health care costs will be ginormous (my word for gigantically enormous)and instead they march to prop up a corrupt system that costs them all dearly...even those currently with cover. It's hard to come to grips with what seems to be an innate selfishness and ignorance of the issues in many Americans...'none of my tax dollars to pay for a sick person' type attitude and yet these same people probably call themselves Christians and don't seem to mind paying their taxes for the super rich, insurance companies and big corporations. Crazy. Kafka-esque. Palin, Hannity, Limburgh and their Foxy ilk are lying treasonous rabble that should be ignored. They would call Jesus a communist.
Not likely with our evil expat Rupert Murderer-of-Real-Journalism Murdoch manipulating the media. Poor Uncle Sam.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

my teacher is going to have us watch the movie on Norma Rae and we are studying unions in class...I just wanted to put a note so Mr Gardner new I looked at it :)

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Dear Aussie Anonymous, You are absolutely 100% right on! Not only that but you write more educatedly that most Americans. I am keeping your very informative statement! Say a prayer for "Poor Uncle Sam and his minions", please.....

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

"educatedly" isn't a word you dope.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

I love the US and Americans

People keep saying this, as though it's a requirement. Certainly there are some Americans that I like. But I wonder how many people have to be killed or die as a result of the actions of the US and the governments its people keep voting into power before others start thinking that maybe it's all right not to like them or their country?

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

I'm an American expat who's lived in London for over forty years. Thanks to National Health, I've been well treated for a series of illnesses that have *not* left me bankrupt. The American opponents of such a system are either rich or Flat Earthers or both.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU "ROSIE ARCHER"??? What a filthy reactionary comment. Are you being paid by the medical insurance mafia? The NORMA RAE film was unusual for Hollywood, which prefers NOT to shake the boat, but it contributed greatly to explaining to the complacent, brainwashed masses the struggles that mostly "invisible" people like Crystal Sutton had to go through to aspire to a minimal decent existence. And no matter how you may dislike Hollywood celebrities and tycoons--and I'm certainly not crazy about them either--Hollywood has much less to do with this infamous health care situation in this nation than the for profit insurance and hospital lobbies, who seek to perpetuate a disgraceful system. Obama, of course, is not helping any with his cowardly and treacherous "health care reform"--which sells us down the river (no single payer) to the point that even the very insurance lobbies we should be tossing out of the game are cheering him on.

Get yourself some decency, please. Or better, grow a real working brain.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

I would like to see the insurance companies mentioned in journalism pieces like this.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Awesome tactic! imagine how much money they saved by the "pending"approval tactic for critically ill patients, just wait them out. Bonus all around!

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Hear! Hear! aussie

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Please name and shame the insurance company.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Whatever. The US has has 100% more poulation than Canada -- who knows how much more than the UK -- HOW ARE WE SUPPOSED TO SUSTAIN A NATIONAL HEALTH SYSTEM OF THIS VOLUME? THINK ABOUT IT.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Dear Aussie, Your comment is thoughtful and right on. I am perplexed as well, but also saddened and embarrassed by some of my fellow Americans. I do hope that good sense will prevail as long as we remain engaged in the issue.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Dear PTC, I think Anita was being ironic. Don't worry, you can look ironic up in any online dictionary.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Checked out the link from Sue Sturgis above... seems that the AFL-CIO only got involved about 1year ago. From the article it states she was diagnosed SEVERAL years ago. The link states her husband has been working TWO jobs to try an cover health care costs. Sounds like she has been a victim of delays from BOTH BIG INSURANCE and BIG UNION... a little too little a little too late. Seems her husband was the only one who really cared.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

I worked steel in the 70s when Norma Rae came out and I liked it. I ran my own business for years and liked that too. One point about WHY NORMA RAE WAS RIGHT (the fine gal and the movie): Corporations have become monsters. I talked with LOTS of corporate people and they think the American workers are their biggest problem. The US worker costs corporations tens of times more than Malays and Chinese, and that's what the "health SCARE" debate is all about. Norma Rae, RIP. She had no idea what kind of evil she was fighting... but she fought bravely & bless her for that.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Uh Are you kidding? Where the Hell was her criminal 'health' insurance provider?
Obviously more concerned with its' bottom line and profits than providing Chrystal the treatment she needed.

If we had decent universal 'medicare for all' healthcare, people like Chrystal wouldn't face being denied treatment by health insurance company bureaucrats and bean counters. Healthcare should be a basic human right, not an industry to make obscene profits for Wall St.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Rosie Archer - The bare bones truth is health insurance companies should cover medical cost. Unions, hollywood, friends, relatives - no one else should have to get involved. I sign all these papers regarding HIPPA and you're telling me that everyone else needs to know more about my patient than me - the caregiver? Well would YOU help someone without knowing why? That means they have to put their junk on the street - just to get what is rightfully theirs according to your theory(she HAD health insurance).

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Dear Sue,

Great story, great round of comments, congrats Facing South,
Howard Romaine

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

I'm wiht ROsie on this one. Since when is it a right to have tax paid services? All the rights listed in the Bill of Rights are individual and do not require government services or taxation. Quite the opposite. You can't call it a right if it impinges on the finnncial resources of others. Australiains are not the authority on political rights since they don't recognize the right of their on citizens to keep and bear arms. That is the true litmus test for any free society. All ohters are just living at the whim and fancy of their respective governments.

It's a shame she waited on the insurance company, I would have paid out of pocket and sued the insurance company later. That's the American way. What jury would not have found in her favor?

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Who the heck ever heard of an Aussie saying "y'all" ??

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

GOD BLESS ALL UNION WORKERS,AND SOON ALL WILL HAVE HEALTH CARE!!!

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Beautifully written.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

it is a great film. crystal was a strong woman as well. to bad unions have pretty much ruined our once strong companies. auto for one. bailouts from the .gov? why do we put up with this? manufacturing for another. all about gone due to union thievery. we have become a morally bankrupt workforce due to union i deserve this thinking, healthcare included.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Thank you Crystal Lee Sutton. You are a true american hero. God bless the unions of the US and union workers, and the people that fight for them and support them. Thank you Aussie and others for your comments in support of health care for all. This lady HAD health insurance and could not get the medical care that would have helped her. What a disgrace. God bless and keep Crystal in His kingdom and I hope she knows how many people thank her and are grateful for her standing up to the system.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

How is the textile industry doing in the US since the unions have been established? It's your body and your responsibility to take care of.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

I lived in Roanoke Rapids, NC from 2002 until 2007. During that time I made the acquaintance of many people who worked in the "mill" (the Stevens Textile Mill that was at one time the largest employer in the area). Of course the mill is closed and completely gone from the area. The same sentiment I got from all of my friends who worked there...both workers and management...was that the union had been a terrible mistake for the town and the business, and ultimately cost all of these good people the jobs that they had spent many years in.

Norma Rae is a great movie with a moving story. Too bad it doesn't tell the whole story.

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

We can't sustain a healthcare system but we can have an army 5 times the size of the next 3 largest armies in the world combined? We can afford to buy billion dollar stealth planes and submarines which are virtually useless against men in mountain caves in a landlocked country? Americans just love their guns

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

He didn't say it was a right within the Bill of Rights; he said it was a basic human right which according to the UN, medical services for the sick IS a basic human right. You're saying the American way is to pay for insurance your entire life and then not get covered so that you can later sue the company and facing their roster of Yale-grad lawyers who know just about every loop-hole in the system? If the American way is to get tricked out of your money, nearly die, and then have to apply more money for the POSSIBILITY of winning, then I no longer have faith in this country

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

It's possible her unions and those "Hollywood people" didn't know of her plight, but her insurance company surely did. Why weren't they doing their job?!

re: Real 'Norma Rae' dies of cancer after insurer delayed treatm

Simple. We have more people paying in. That's how insurance works. The bigger the pool, the more the risk is spread.