The film is based on a real-life union organizing campaign at J.P. Stevens Mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Norma Rae is based on Crystal Lee Sutton. Reuben Warshowsky, the union organizer, is based on Eli Zivkovich, a 55-year-old former West Virginia coal miner. In 1974, thanks to the efforts of Sutton and Zivkovich, workers at J.P. Stevens Mill voted to join the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union. However, it took 10 years for the union to get a contract. Some real-life events are re-created verbatim in the movie, including Norma Rae holding up the "UNION" sign and the plant workers shutting down their machines, and Norma Rae waking up her children to tell them about her relationships with their fathers.
Director Martin Ritt first conceptualized this movie when he saw an article in The New York Times by Henry P. Leifermann, author of the book "Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance". The book was about Crystal Lee Sutton's quest to form a union at the J.P. Stevens Company textile mill in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina.