Conditions at J.P. Stevens were just as bad as Sutton recalled. A few months after returning to the mill, she attended her first union meeting. Immediately drawn to the movement, she began collaborating with Textile Workers Union of America and organizer Eli Zivkovich. Sutton quickly drew the ire of factory bosses for her outspokenness. One anecdote in particular captures her staunch defiance and strength of will. Zivkovich had gifted her a notebook entitled "What the Company Will Do for You"--a book full of blank pages. Whenever she was called into supervisors’ offices to be reprimanded for miscellaneous, petty offenses like loitering in the bathroom or "talking too much," Sutton brought the book with her and, ever-attentive to their valid complaints, took notes in it. This rendered management dumbstruck, astonished that anyone would have the gall to behave like this in the face of their authority.
Things came to a head when Sutton violated company policy to copy down an anti-union propaganda letter that had been posted on a bulletin board. Knowing that they could get in trouble with National Labor Relations Board for the racist content of the letter and already looking for a reason to get rid of the rabble-rouser, factory bosses summoned the police to arrest Sutton. Before she was taken away, however, Sutton seized the chance for one last show of resistance, climbing onto a worktable and holding up a makeshift cardboard sign on which she had scrawled the word “UNION." This iconic moment of defiance would feature famously in the film Norma Rae, a work that she was the inspiration for.
Sutton continued her work in labor organizing and advocacy for the rest of her life, scoring a hard-fought victory in court against J.P. Stevens several years after she was fired. Though she succumbed to cancer in 2009 at the age of 68, she has left her mark on labor history in the south and as portrayed on the silver screen.