Union was in her soul


Crystal Lee Sutton, the North Carolina textile worker played by Sally Fields in the 1975 movie “Norma Rae,” has died of cancer. Many have pointed to her death as another tragic example of the impact of profit-driven health insurance – which in this case delayed payment so long that the treatment she needed was ineffective.

I am outraged and saddened that decades after Crystal Lee so courageously fought against one corporate practice — denial of workers’ rights, another such practice — denial of health care — contributed to her death.

But what stands out for me is the act for which J.P. Stevens fired her.

The company, desperate to prevent unionization, had posted a flyer warning the workers that the union would be run by Black people. Crystal Lee made a copy of the flyer, intending to use it against management, and was fired — the moment in the movie when she stands up on her work table holding a handmade sign reading, “UNION!.”

That moment (the drama of which still gives me goose bumps) was a turning point in the organizing drive. Despite the company’s attempts to frighten white workers away from the union by appealing to racism, the workers voted the union in.

For those white textile workers to refuse to side with management against their fellow workers was a tremendous victory.

It reminds me of the struggle being played out on the national stage around the legislative agenda of President Obama.

The right wing — as desperate as JP Stevens was to prevent working people from coming together — is using and appealing to racism to undermine support for the president, and derail the change in direction for which he was elected.

That is the message of the “take our country back” gang; the meaning of the insult in Joe Wilson’s behavior towards the President, and of the over-the-line tactics at the town hall meetings on health care.

As those North Carolina textile workers did when they rejected racism and chose solidarity, so must the American people reject the racism that can blind them to the potential of the Obama presidency to elevate the standard of living and expand the democratic rights of all working people.

As Crystal Lee Sutton did, so must we act — and expose the despicable use of racism for what it is: a divide and conquer tactic, with no place in our multiracial, multicultural, 21st century America.