A Pittsburgh union organizer's memoir about working in Arizona explores race, class, and more
Asked to envision labor organizing, some people today might think of picket lines. To others, the phrase might conjure old black-and-white photos of guys in hard hats.
But as ongoing union drives at workplaces like Amazon warehouses and Starbucks coffeehouses demonstrate, labor organizing continues to evolve. And Pittsburgh-based author Daisy Pitkin’s new memoir “On The Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight To Start a Union,” (Algonquin Books) is a good place to start catching up. It illustrates how some unions operate today, and also how the reasons many workers want them haven’t changed all that much in a century or more.
The book covers a period of several years starting in 2003, when Pitkin, then a 25-year-old organizer for Workers United, was sent to the Phoenix area to help some 2,000 industrial-laundry workers there form unions.
The job lasted several years, for numerous reasons. Some had to do with the nature of the workforce. Industrial laundries are essentially factories that clean and press the linens for hospitals, hotels, and restaurants, from soiled ICU bedsheets to greasy napkins. The work is physically demanding and can be dangerous: hospital linens often come complete with scalpels, syringes, and even body parts. But while the workers had incentive to organize, most were Spanish-speaking immigrant women, and many feared retribution from their employers.
Other reasons have to do with U.S. labor law. Though it nominally gives workers the right to organize, said Pitkin in an interview, “labor law in this country is really broken and loopholed.”
For Pitkin and her fellow organizers, a key ally was Mexican-born Alma Gomez García, who was the crucial liaison to her fellow workers.
“It took years to organize the hundreds of workers in that laundry who, from the very beginning of the campaign, a majority of them wanted to have a union,” said Pitkin. “Regardless, the employer was able to delay and delay and pressure them and try to break their union because of loopholed labor law. And through that, Alma and I became really good friends.”
“On The Line” chronicles the painstaking work of building a union under such conditions, much of which involves cultivating interpersonal networks among workers and organizers – and not to mention legal battles with employers. (Many of the laundries in question were owned by the multinational corporation Sodexo.)
Pitkin’s relationship with Alma is reflected in the book’s unusual style: It’s written to a “you,” who is Alma.
“We think of solidarity as sort of something that stands in contrast to a fight, and the language that we use to describe union organizing is often filled with that kind of conflict — fighting and standing up to the boss and taking power away from the boss,” said Pitkin. “And in my experience as an organizer, the moments where the union really builds its power are those kind of quieter moments. There are moments almost of intimacy, of deep caring between people, and establishing a network of that kind of caring. So I thought that in writing the book to Alma, it would invite readers to think about and maybe even feel some of that intimacy inside the real work of organizing.”
“Alma is really the gutsiest worker leader I've ever met,” Pitkin added.
Yet the very battle that brought Pitkin and García so close also ultimately tore the two friends apart, Pitkin writes. Some of that split was due to the appearance on the scene of a second union, whose activities incited more rancor than solidarity. But Pitkin also writes that she became increasingly aware of her own complicity in some of the top-down aspects of traditional labor organizing, which also played a role in dividing her and Alma.
Another important element of the book is Pitkin’s excavation of labor history, most notably the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1914. Nearly 150 garment workers died when their factory on the upper floors of a Manhattan building caught fire. Their employer had locked them in.
As with the industrial laundries of the 2000s, most of the Triangle workers were immigrant women with limited command of English. And Pitkin argues that although federal laws passed in the 1930s guaranteed many previously unprotected labor rights, subsequent watering down, and lax enforcement, has left workers today little better off than their early-20th-century counterparts.
Yet she also makes a larger point about how progress happens. Labor history is often told as a series of workplace disasters, or brave individuals standing up to power (like Sally Field’s character in the film “Norma Rae”). But Pitkin places the Triangle disaster in a context that shows it’s more about group action, and strategic planning, over the long haul.
Toward the end of “On The Line,” Pitkin, burnt out, quits the union and goes back to school. She never actually stopped organizing, she said: As a contingent faculty member at a university, she worked to win her colleagues more rights. She later moved to Pittsburgh, where she is an organizer with Workers United. One of her campaigns, in fact, is the one to unionize Starbucks workers. She also works with unionized employees at industrial laundries here.
“I realized that I missed the labor movement and the good work that goes on inside of it,” she said. “And also, I think what is true and what I always knew was true is that there is no real path toward a real movement of resistance if there's not an active, growing, vibrant labor movement in this country.”