The Many Norma Raes: Working-Class Women in the 1970s Campaign to Organize J.P. Stevens Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Joey, Fink
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • In the 1970s, labor, civil rights activists, feminists, religious leaders, and mill workers united in a multi-faceted campaign to unionize J. P. Stevens’s textile mills in the Piedmont South. The campaign had support from celebrities, civic leaders, and professional athletes. In 1979, the Academy Award-winning movie, Norma Rae, dramatized the story of mill worker Crystal Lee Sutton, who was fired and arrested for her part in the organizing drive in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Sutton toured the country as the “real Norma Rae,” ratcheting up the public pressure on Stevens, the nation’s second largest textile manufacturer and “number one labor law violator.” This dissertation presents the Stevens campaign as part of a broad movement for workers’ rights in the 1970s that tapped into a groundswell of grassroots organizing in the South and nationwide around issues of economic injustice, occupational health and safety, civil rights, and feminism. The organizing drive in Roanoke Rapids in 1973-74 demonstrated that the mill workers could sustain interracial solidarity as they contended with Stevens’s harassment and intimidation, as well as internal conflicts over issues of sexuality and respectability. Stevens’s refusal to bargain in good faith in Roanoke Rapids prompted the recently-merged textile and clothing workers union, ACTWU, to implement a nationwide boycott and public shaming campaign to force the company to bargain in good faith. White and African American women emerged as local leaders and national spokeswomen. This dissertation contextualizes the mill women’s experiences and illuminates the crucial role they played in capturing attention, garnering support, and motivating action from allies. Their stories captured the public’s attention and offered intimate glimpses into the physical contours and emotional dimensions of their lives and labor. There were many Norma Raes in the Stevens campaign, While the decline of the textile industry has overshadowed their accomplishments, the working-class women who put themselves front and center to win union representation blazed a trail that has outlasted the mills they organized.
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  • In Copyright
  • Hall, Jacquelyn Dowd
  • Vargas, Zaragosa
  • Korstad, Robert
  • MacLean, Nancy
  • Kasson, John F.
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2015
Place of publication
  • Chapel Hill, NC
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