NONFICTION: An intimate look at the volatile work of union organizing.
“On the Line” by Daisy Pitkin; Algonquin Books (268 pages, $26.95)
Daisy Pitkin’s captivating portrait of a five-year campaign to organize workers at industrial laundries in Arizona is classified as a memoir, though it could more easily be described as a love story.
Love bursts through every page of this remarkable book. There is Pitkin’s love for the many women and men — Alma, Antonia, Lupe, Reina and others — who risk their livelihoods for better pay and humane working conditions. And great feelings of love and solidarity guide Pitkin, a passionate labor organizer with UNITE, an international union of textile workers. Pitkin goes to extraordinary lengths to amplify the voices of workers who are bullied, interrogated, fired and spied on during the course of a viciously contested union organizing campaign.
But like many love stories, Pitkin’s beautifully written account, “On the Line,” is infused with heartbreak. Despite overwhelming early support for the union, Pitkin and her fellow organizers would narrowly lose an election at a large commercial laundry in Phoenix because of employer intimidation and harassment. Workers at the laundry are brought to tears and rage over the outcome.
Pitkin is a talented writer who frequently shifts the narrative to a more intimate second person “you,” which has the effect of bringing readers closer to the workers and the daily brutality of industrial laundries, which clean linens for hospitals, restaurants and hotels.
“You wanted gloves that hospital needles cannot puncture,” Pitkin writes. “You wanted safety masks to keep the blood and fluids from other bodies from entering your bodies.”
“On the Line” comes at a promising moment for the labor movement as workers at some of the nation’s most prominent companies — including Starbucks, Amazon and REI — are organizing for better pay and working conditions.
Yet in reading Pitkin’s blow-by-blow account, it is remarkable that unions ever prevail in elections. Under US labor law, employers face virtually no financial consequences for intimidation and other union-busting tactics. At the industrial laundry in Phoenix, the company harassed union supporters, fired a key union leader during a work stoppage, spied on meetings, and threatened to freeze wages and benefits.
After an 18-day trial, the workers would persuade the NLRB to overturn the election and recognize the union. Yet even then, victory was not final: The company appealed, effectively delaying a decent contract for years.
Pitkin does not dwell on the unfairness of the NLRB election process—terrain that has already been explored by others. She is far too busy organizing — a profession that seems perfectly suited to her restless and empathic spirit. The most poignant moments of “On the Line” stem from the relationships that Pitkin forged with the laundry workers, many of them immigrant women.
Over countless house visits, Pitkin learns how to dance the salsa in a worker’s living room, to sew old clothing, to bounce workers’ children on her lap and to help them with their homework. “We learned who went to church with whom, and who watched which TV shows, and where everyone was getting their bulk beans and oranges and on-sale jeans and sandals,” Pitkin writes.
At the same time, Pitkin does not romanticize the often tedious work of organizing and the very real “fissure” between staff organizers, who come from outside the workplace, and the rank-and-file workers who are risking their jobs to join the fight. .
There are times when Pitkin’s psyche appears to strain from the boundary-less nature of the work. She snorts caffeine pills, loses sleep, gets tearful at meetings and has recurring dreams about moths. In fact, moths are the most potent metaphor of this unusual book. Moths flit in and out of Pitkin’s consciousness, and readers are left to find the meaning. To this reader, they seem to represent both the metamorphosis that workers undergo during a long and fierce struggle—and the perils of caring, of flying to the flame.
Virtual event: In conversation with Dania Rajendra, 8 pm Eastern April 11, hosted by East Side Freedom Library, St. Paul, Minnesota. Register at https://bit.ly/3qdn4hU
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