Who Makes the American Working Class: Women Workers and Culture

The Following is an excerpt from Beyond Norma Rae: How Puerto Rican and Southern White Women Fought for a Place in the American Working Class by Aimee Loiselle, which is available now wherever books are sold.

In the late 1970s, Hollywood producers took the published biography of Crystal Lee Sutton, a white southern textile worker, and transformed it into a blockbuster 1979 film, Norma Rae, featuring Sally Field in the title role. In Beyond Norma Rae, Aimee Loiselle draws on an impressive range of sources—union records, industry reports, film scripts, and oral histories—to show that while Norma Rae constructed a powerful image of individual defiance by a white working-class woman, female industrial workers across the country and from diverse racial backgrounds understood the significance of cultural representation and fought to tell their own stories. 

“A deft analysis of the ways in which race, gender, and immigration status determine how media has portrayed the labor movement. Recommended for readers interested in labor history and popular media.”

Library Journal

Gloria Maldonado and Crystal Lee Jordan detested their work conditions and wanted to do something meaningful with their time and energy in addition to raising children. In the early 1970s, the labor movement offered them opportunities to try, and each woman decided to become active in an industrial union. After several years with the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), Maldonado became the education director for Local 66 in New York City. Crystal Lee, on the other hand, joined a union for the first time, signing a membership card with the Textile Workers Union of America (TWUA) in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Although the women did not work in the same factories or attend the same rallies, their jobs and unions were interconnected parts of a textile and garment industry that served as an engine for US global ambitions during the twentieth century.

On a chilly day in March 1971, Maldonado walked into the High School of Fashion Industries through one of its four metal doors, each capped with an art deco mural. She was at the respected public school in midtown Manhattan to teach an ILGWU industrial sewing class. Founded in 1926 with classes for dressmaking and garment cutting, it was the Central Needle Trades High School until the 1956 New York City Board of Education changed the name to reflect the school’s expanded curriculum related to design and the fashion industry. As a union educator, Maldonado was carrying on a tradition of Puerto Rican women helping other women workers improve their skills and demand better pay.

Maldonado had caught the attention of several New York labor leaders because she was a vocal member determined to question both company management and men in union leadership. In 1970, these labor leaders offered Maldonado a full-time job as an organizer for Local 66, and she added the title of education director a year later. At the High School of Fashion Industries, the Local 66 manager and a photographer from the ILGWU newspaper Justice joined her to get photos to promote the union’s educational programs. She walked the close rows of sewing machines to assist the women of color most likely attending for bilingual instruction.

Book cover for Beyond Norma Rae by Aimee Loiselle

Two years later, in May 1973, Crystal Lee caught the attention of southern labor leaders with her determination and willingness to be vocal. When the regional TWUA organizer wanted to file a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) grievance about a letter the J.P. Stevens Company had posted on its mills’ bulletin boards, several white members, including Crystal Lee, tried to hand copy it for him. The letter offered a “special word to our black employees” and said the TWUA was making false promises that “by going into the union in mass, you can dominate it and control it.” Union members knew that less than 20 percent of J.P. Stevens workers were Black because pressure from civil rights labor activism, particularly its successes with Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, had only recently punctured the rigid segregation of mills. They also knew the company wanted to trigger the bigotry and racial fears of uninformed white millhands, who would imagine the union “supported black power.” If that happened, the TWUA would not get enough votes in an NLRB certification election to represent the workers.

Black union members could not copy the letter because bossmen had been following them for months and had already fired one man. A white worker tried but gave up after a bossman told her to stop. When Crystal Lee called the organizer, he said he needed the exact wording of the letter. She decided to get it done, writing fast and flipping through the posted pages, but a bossman walked up and told her she could not copy it. Crystal Lee kept writing. Another bossman told her to stop and go see the supervisor. Crystal Lee replied she would go after the break. Although nervous, she went to supper, where coworkers asked what had happened and said she had “guts.” Crystal Lee mentioned that the bossmen said they were going to fire her, so “y’all can expect anything.” It was a collective event, which millhands discussed throughout the shift.

Perhaps if Crystal Lee had conformed to the mill town’s patriarchal gender norms and called her husband so he could take responsibility for her, the situation would have ended with a simple termination. Instead she was noncompliant.

Crystal Lee returned to her towel-folding station, where the assistant overseer ordered her to go to the supervisor. She saw a few bossmen and her forelady waiting. The supervisor asked why she was using the pay phone on company time, and nobody spoke up for her as he listed her supposed infractions. Making such false accusations was a common means of harassing union members because supervisors could not legally reprimand them for union activity. Crystal Lee resisted, asking the men for their names and titles. They looked confused, and the supervisor shouted that she should call her husband. “Tell him to pick you up. I want you out,” he yelled. Perhaps if Crystal Lee had conformed to the mill town’s patriarchal gender norms and called her husband so he could take responsibility for her, the situation would have ended with a simple termination. Instead she was noncompliant.

Crystal Lee said she had to get her pocketbook and walked back to the folding station. She noticed coworkers staring, and Mary Mosley, an African American woman in her section, asked what happened. “He fired me,” Crystal Lee replied as a Pinkerton guard and a policeman arrived. She asked Mosley for a marker, wrote UNION on a piece of cardboard, stood on her table, and held it overhead. Her fellow union members, peers, and neighbors stopped work, many raising a hand in V for victory. They could not imagine that this action, which emerged from decades of labor activism and years of interracial union organizing, would become the key dramatic scene in a Hollywood movie. They could not imagine it would generate an icon that would appear for decades as a representation of individualist defiance.

Aimee Loiselle is assistant professor of history at Central Connecticut State University.