Sunday, September 20, 2009


CRYSTAL LEE SUTTON, DECEMBER 31, 1940- SEPTEMBER 11, 2009, was a union organizer who's real life was the inspiration for the 1979 movie, "Norma Rae", starring Sally Field, for which she won an Academy Award.
Ms. Sutton worked at a textile factory in North Carolina. Poor conditions and low wages led her to take a leading role in organizing the plant. She was eventually fired, and upon leaving she defied the authorities by writing the word,"Union", on a piece of cardboard. She got up on her worktable and turned around to show her sign to her co-workers, who cut their machines off. The factory just stopped working. Within the year, the union won the right to represent the employees.
A court ordered Ms Sutton to be rehired and receive her back wages. She quit and went to work as a union organizer. She has been recognized as a woman who led a struggle of thousands, and inspired a whole generation. Including me.
It was a very hot August in 1979, and I was working in the recently renovated cosmetics department of Bloomingdale's. Lights bounced off surrounding mirrors, marble floors also seemed too reflective. This was the million dollar remake, the B'way, that put Bloomies on the map, that attracted shoppers and tourists and gawkers alike. I was the makeup artist for Revlon, and as the days wore on, the temperature in this particular department rose to the unbearable. I found that I was applying makeup to customers who's sweat needed to be mopped up as I rouged here, mascaraed there. It was cruel and disrespectful to the women who'd scheduled this treat, and it was awful for us to keep trying to do a professional job. And where was the air conditioning, we were asking? None to be found in our department. Some lame-brained excuse was given to us, day after day.. "the air conditioning is being fixed".
There was a trick. Air conditioning was turned on high at all the entrances to the store. Once you entered and were enticed into spending a cool hour or so, heading to cosmetics perhaps, a rude surprise was in store. A feverish heat clutched at the customer, who immediately became as delirious as we were. Instead of running out screaming for a respite, they swarmed over us as if hypnotized to enter an early hell. But not really buying, who would buy makeup that was flowing off their face?
I made a sign. I held it up. I turned around. The sign know what...I went from counter to counter. I got signatures. It was a petition. I said that I was taking one rep from each counter with me to the president's office at 1:00. That he would see us. That we would demand that the air conditioning be turned on immediately. OR..we would all leave the store and go on strike, that we would picket. That we would call the media, ( I had friends). That this million dollar showcase could indeed become the jewel in the crown of Bloomingdale's.
Thank you, Norma Rae. Thank you, Crystal Lee Sutton. It worked. Of course...Union, union!!


Raph G. Neckmann said...

How inspiring! An act of integrity which will have benefitted staff, customers and all aspects of the store.

alaine@éclectique said...

Good on you, Lyn!! Unbearable conditions with no air circulating; people must have been dropping like flies! And nothing worse than applying makeup to a sweaty face; I experienced that in tropical Queensland a few years back.

Lyn said...

Hi Raph-
Thank you..I think the movie sort of went to my head..but things did change for the better!

Lyn said...

Hi Alaine-
Exactly..dropping like flies describes it all! It was the most ridiculous situation..the store trying to save money (what else?)

A Cuban In London said...

What a magical post. Yes, union works and you should not have suffered the heat at all! Well done. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Lyn said...

Greetings to a Cuban-
From early morning NYC...Thank you ..
There wasn't any union after that day of union-like action. There was fear on their part for the bottom line and some respect for us!

Unknown said...

Remind me not to get on the wrong side of you, Lyn! It is sad that some organisations have to be threatened before they apply decent conditions; much goodwill is wasted.

Lyn said...

Hi Derrick-
Trust me, you'd have to be mean as Scrooge!
The thing was, we were supposed to be brainless wonders, we wouldn't even try to change conditions..we showed 'em , right?

FireLight said...

Lyn, thank you for including this!
I had read the article in the NYT and our local paper.
I live very near Opelika, AL where the movie was filmed. In fact, I was teaching in the schools there and knew many of the extras. Imagine the the thrill we all had when Sally won an Acadmey Award. The sad side of it all, the textile mills here never did have unions. I taught the children of many mill workers. The injuries and working conditions they indured were unbelievable. I would hear some accident/horror story, and the next thing I knew, some kid was dropping out of the 8th grade saying, "I can always work in the mill." Whenever I hear someone complain about the jobs that were lost when these mills had to close, I say a silent prayer of thanks and try not to gloat too much.
Bravo, Lyn! Brave girl!

Lyn said...

Hi FireLight-
It really is a small world. I'm sure you witnessed much difficulty, and helped many. I was so inspired!! Thank you...


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