Anatomy of a Union Organizing Drive
Unions aren’t just vehicles for transforming society — they also transform lives, as workers and organizers learn how to build an organization that can overthrow the authoritarian dictatorship of the boss and create a beloved community.
- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
Many of us know that rebuilding the labor movement is absolutely essential for winning a better world. But that’s a kind of dry, intellectual point. Unless you’ve been a part of a union drive yourself, you probably don’t know much about how such a drive looks and feels, and how it affects and transforms the workers and organizers who are carrying it out.
In her memoir On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union, veteran union organizer Daisy Pitkin recounts the tale of her first organizing campaign, at an industrial laundry in Phoenix, Arizona. The story ranges from thrilling to bruising to heartbreaking to triumphant, on top of recounting the nuts and bolts of organizing itself.
Pitkin spoke with Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht about the book in a guest-hosted episode of our podcast the Dig. You can listen to the episode here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been an organizer for nearly two decades, but clearly there was something about your first union drive that stuck with you. What was it about that campaign that led you to write a whole memoir about it?
The campaign itself is epic. It’s a really good example of worker-led bravery on the shop floor; of broken labor law; of how hard workers have to fight for unions in this country today; and of the yearslong, grueling work that it takes to build a union and then to force your employer to recognize that union and bargain a contract with you.
Because it was my first campaign, the work of helping to lead that campaign and facilitate and coordinate with those workers really changed me as a person. The memoir format of the book is a way to allow that change to happen on the page and makes it available to me in a new way to think about an experience.
Run us through the basic details of the campaign. How did you find yourself in this union drive? What was the basic chronology of events and who were some of the main players in the book?
I did some labor organizing before I went to work for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). I was involved with anti-sweatshop work during college. I went to work for a group called Campaign for Labor Rights, which was essentially organizing grassroots US activists to support workers overseas who were producing garments that ended up in the United States — for example, workers organizing in a factory in Guatemala that would make jeans that get sold at Target. I worked on a campaign about Gap jeans being produced in a factory in Lesotho, organizing and activating activists across the United States to hand out leaflets in front of Target or Gap stores in support of workers elsewhere who were trying to form unions.
That work really felt indirect to me. It was important, but I would go to malls and stand with groups of activists and hand out leaflets, argue with security guards about how close to the store we could stand, and sometimes get kicked out of the mall. I wanted to be involved in organizing that felt more direct.
The book is an examination of that desire and how problematic it was in the first place. I realized that was a problematic desire that I had as a young, college-educated white person who wanted to feel the heat of a worker fight (even though I’m from a working-class background and had been working jobs all the way through college).
I moved to Tucson after living in Washington, DC for a couple of years. I didn’t want to live in Washington anymore, and knew some people doing border action work in the Tucson area around the United States–Mexico border.
UNITE, this small, scrappy organizing union, was headhunting people who had organizing experience to join in this experimental idea that someone inside the union had. They wanted to try organizing industrial laundry workers in a red city in a red state, where we had 0 percent union density, to see if we could organize some of the country’s most vulnerable workers, in jobs that are typically invisible. I got brought into the campaign.
At the beginning of the book, an organizing director is interviewing me for the job and is describing to me that the project will be trying to organize industrial laundry workers in Phoenix, Arizona — most of whom are women and immigrants from Mexico and Central America, many of whom are undocumented. Phoenix is a deep-red city in a deep-red state in Sheriff Joe Arpaio country. It seemed crazy; when we started, we didn’t know if it was possible. We didn’t know if we were going to organize a single laundry, but it was exciting anyway. They were workers who desperately needed unions — anyone who has a boss needs a union, but in industrial laundries the stakes are really high.
I recognized these stakes almost immediately while sitting there at the interview at a bar, drinking a beer with the interviewer. This organizing director was explaining to me the working conditions inside industrial laundries: the injuries that happen; the hot, heavy equipment; and the chemical and biohazardous exposure. It felt like a fight that was worth having.
You mentioned that you wanted to be closer to the heat of struggle. It sounds like you couldn’t have picked a better campaign to throw yourself into. There were almost impossible odds to try to grind out a victory at a place where the labor movement had no foothold almost whatsoever at that point.
The feeling that I had when I took the job was that the stakes were very high, the odds were almost impossible, and we were going to go in and see if we could grind out a win. And we did win. We won, actually quite a lot in Phoenix. We organized 60 percent of the industry in five years. But it wasn’t really because of anything we did. That’s not the way organizing campaigns work. It was because the workers themselves decided that they were going to stand with each other, stand up for themselves, and fight for a more democratic workplace.
What you’re describing is a case that’s uniquely difficult given all of the things that you were up against. Many union campaigns involve this almost foolish belief that you as a union with a bunch of scrappy workers — who are often low paid and experiencing various levels of marginalization in society — can throw yourselves at multibillion dollar corporations and defeat them. This is a classic David and Goliath, underdog narrative. It’s shocking to me that there are not more books like yours that are out there, because everyone loves this story about going up against a far more powerful adversary and actually toppling them. That seems to be what basically every single union drive is.
It’s the underdog. It’s all of the stories that Americans tend to lean into. It’s the narrative that we like. More than believing that we could win, we believed that we should win. We believed that we should be able to win. It shouldn’t be so hard. On paper, workers have rights. They should be able to sign union cards. If the company won’t recognize the union, then they have to have an election. Workers should be able to vote in an environment that’s free from intimidation from their employers, and they should be able to vote. If a majority of them vote for the union, then the company should recognize the union and bargain a contract with them.
It’s such a principled fight that you get to a position where you believe that you should be allowed to win. But it’s almost never the case that it’s that easy (I’ve never worked on a campaign where it was that easy). And it’s certainly not the case in the story that I tell in the book.
By this point, most leftists understand the necessity of rebuilding the labor movement if we’re to have any chance of fighting back against corporate power. But you spend a significant part of the book talking about the deeply personal aspects of union organizing — both its impact on your life and its impact on the lives of the workers you were organizing alongside.
Even in the relatively few books that are written about the labor movement, this personal aspect isn’t usually the author’s focus.
It was such a personally transformative experience for me and for folks that I was working with — the workers themselves and the other organizers on the team. Fights are often very personal, and the substance of a union that is built around a fight is personal. It’s built out of solidarity, which is a substance that’s about mutual aid and care for one another. I didn’t know how to write the book without writing about it in a very personal way.
In the best of campaigns, what gets created through a fight is a beloved community, and the beloved community of workers becomes a community worth defending. Eventually, once the beloved community comes into existence — which is a whole series and network of personal interactions and interpersonal care — the fight that you’re having with a company becomes like a community defense project. That’s what I saw happening on this campaign.
You say in the book that many of these campaigns are described as workers trying to wrest some power out of the hands of the boss and putting that power into workers’ hands. In the course of this campaign, you realize that is not what you’re doing. You are building a kind of power that is very distinct from the kind of power that the boss holds: the building of that beloved community.
As a young organizer, I was trained that the boss has power, and what happens when we help workers organize a union is that they build power, i.e. take power away from the boss. The two kinds of power were seared together in the early training that I had.
It became almost immediately evident to me that that’s not really what’s happening in a union organizing campaign. We don’t take power away from the boss. The kind of power that the boss has is not something we want anything to do with. We don’t want to traffic in that kind of power. It’s authoritarian power, and it’s not of us or for us. We can’t build that kind of power and exercise that kind of power.
The power that gets built by a union is a separate substance altogether. It’s a separate entity and its own system. If you build enough of the kind of power that is solidarity, that is what workers build when they form a union together. If you build enough of that kind of power, you don’t need to take power away from the boss, because that kind of power just becomes unimportant — you have your own source of drive and power.
Launching a Campaign
From the beginning, you were starting to dumpster dive at various facilities after-hours trying to find some details to build lists for making contact with workers and forming a committee and all of that. Can you describe how that took place, and how you built the kind of community and alternative form of power that you’re describing?
Industrial laundries are big places; they’re huge warehouses on the outskirts of most major cities across the United States. They are in every major community. They’re housed in warehouses and are full of big industrial equipment.
The campaign started in Phoenix when we decided we were going to try to organize three industrial laundries at the same time. The first phase of that was to build as much information as we could on the laundries that we had decided to target. We dumpster dove, we got license plate numbers, and we talked to people who lived in communities where these workers might live to build contact lists.
We knew that we were going to run labor board elections, which is not a necessity on union organizing campaigns. We also were running a blitz model — when you quietly build lists of workers ahead of a weekend when you’re going to kick off the campaign publicly. You’ve quietly and secretly formed an organizing committee of workers who want to build a union in their workplace together. We were able to do that at three separate facilities without getting “made.” In union organizing lingo, that just means that the boss doesn’t yet know what you’re up to.
You do it quietly because you don’t want the boss to know what’s going on before the workers who decided to organize are able to talk to all of their coworkers. Immediately, of course, the company or the boss will start fighting the union. You want to be able to talk to folks in a space where they haven’t yet been intimidated, threatened, surveilled, or otherwise bullied by the boss to first see if they even want to form a union.
That’s what we did in Phoenix. We built the list and organizing committees quietly, and then kicked off the campaign on one weekend when we tried to do five hundred house calls in forty-eight hours. It was a massive operation, and it was really successful at two of the facilities. But at one of them, we actually were made in the week before the blitz campaign. That’s still the largest nonunion laundry in Phoenix today. It’s never been organized because the company found out before we were able to talk to a majority of the workers. At the other two facilities, the blitz went really well.
Usually a blitz happens over the course of the weekend, because the main managers of the company are away from the plant, even though industrial laundries tend to run seven days a week. It gives you a little bit of time to try to talk to the majority of workers at their homes. In both of the successful facilities, vast majorities signed cards indicating they wanted a union. We held organizing committee meetings on Sunday night before workers had to go back into the factory on Monday morning to confront the hell that was going to be brought down on them.
Part of this organizing is building a committee of workers who are the central activists fighting for the union in a given workplace. One of the members of that committee in your book is named Alma, who is the person that you are writing your book to in a second-person narrative.
Alma is the main worker leader at the largest health care laundry in Phoenix. It was then owned by Sodexo, which is a multinational French corporation that had industrial laundries all across the United States. The company have sold most of them off at this point, and Alma’s laundry is no longer owned by Sodexo, but it was at that point. She was the first industrial laundry worker that I visited as a newbie organizer. We went to her house because her husband was the cousin of a shop steward in a laundry facility in California.
We sat on her couch and knew very quickly that she was going to be an important leader in the fight in that factory. She and six of her other coworkers formed a secret organizing committee before the blitz and then did the lion’s share of the work. They were in cars, driving around for fourteen or fifteen hours a day, visiting coworker after coworker.
I’ve been an organizer now for twenty years, and I’ve still to this day not been on another blitz that was like the one at Alma’s laundry. It was like wildfire. Workers were signing cards and then getting in the car with us to go to another of their coworker’s houses, who would sign a card, and then that worker would get into the car as well. We were caravanning around with cars full of people finding their coworkers around Phoenix who were all signing union cards.
At one point, we held an impromptu union meeting in the yard of a worker because several of the neighbors also worked in the factory and they all just sort of came over. Everyone signed union cards. It was an incredible experience.
What were the conditions that Alma and her coworkers at that facility were experiencing?
There are two kinds of industrial laundries: health care facilities that wash linens from hospitals and outpatient surgery centers, and hospitality laundries that wash linens from restaurants and hotels. Alma worked in a healthcare laundry, which comes with its own special kind of hazards.
Alma worked in the “soil sort” department, which is the first department in the laundry, where the soiled linen is coming off of the backs of eighteen-wheelers into the factory. There’s a person called a “dumper” who dumps the linen onto this conveyor belt, and Alma and her coworkers in this department stand alongside a conveyor belt and sort the linen very quickly as it comes down, putting sheets into one bin, rags into another, hospital gowns into another, and pillowcases into another.
They’re sorting very quickly. These bags have hundreds of pounds of hospital linen compounded that come down the belt. They come into contact with all the things that you would expect them to come into contact with when working with soiled hospital linen: puke and feces, surgical tools that come wadded up in the linen. Needlestick injuries happen in that department. Frequently workers come into contact with fluid bags left over from surgery. Sometimes body parts are left behind in the linen.
Alma demonstrated to me how the work happens. She speaks only Spanish, and I was still learning Spanish at that point, so a lot of the house call happened in gestures. She was showing me how she moves the linen, and I was surprised by how quickly she was moving her hands. She worked ten-hour shifts and she was standing there whipping her hands back and forth. She told me: “we work too fast to be safe.” She told me that a coworker of hers, just prior to that house visit, had been stuck by a surgical needle that was wadded up in one of the sheets and had to go on prophylactic antibiotics, which happens regularly in industrial laundries.
Industrial laundries are huge spaces. The linen moves from the soil department into the wash department, where it’s washed in these tunnels that are often as big as school buses. The linen spins down the tunnel. Jams happen often in the tunnel, and in nonunion laundries, it is not infrequent for workers to climb inside the machine to get the jam out.
If you’re following proper Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protocol, there’s a whole lockout/tagout confined space entry system that is supposed to be followed, but it takes a long time. The machine has to cool. You have to cut power to it. Someone has to climb inside after the water has been drained. Then you have to plug the machine back in and it has to heat up again. It cuts production drastically. So workers make shortcuts and sometimes climb into the machine while it’ws still full of hot, soiled water.
On the other side of the school bus tunnel, the wet linen comes out, and water needs to be extracted before it goes into industrial dryers. There are different ways in different laundries, different pieces of equipment that extract water. But in Alma’s factory at the time, they had these cake compressors. The linen would be put onto a platform and a weighted saucer would be slammed down into the linen to press the water out. There was a worker during the time of the organizing drive whose arm had been injured pretty badly by being smashed in the cake compressors
After the extractors, the linen gets brought through another series of conveyor belts into industrial dryers. My book is dedicated to someone named Eleazar Torres Gomez, who died in an industrial dryer in a Cintas facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where safety guards had been removed from the conveyor belts to allow production to move much faster. He got pulled onto the conveyor belt and into the industrial dryer. The door automatically closed and the dryer started. He died from severe burns inside the industrial dryer.
After that, there’s the clean side of the laundry, where linens are ironed and folded and then packed to go back on the trucks and brought back to health care facilities. The irons are often turned up fast and hot because they need to up production. There are people who feed linens into the irons — people who’ve worked there for years, as most industrial laundry workers do, have burns on their hands and arms.
On the other side of the industrial irons are people who are called catchers; they catch the linen coming out the other side to fold it. I’ve seen this happen in industrial laundry facilities in Phoenix, but also elsewhere — the catchers are catching hot linen that is being spit out of an iron. There was a worker on a campaign in North Carolina who had been catching for so many years that her fingerprints had been burned off of her fingers. She was having trouble getting her work visa renewed because she no longer had fingerprints.
These are just some of the sort of hazards that workers still face today in industrial laundries in every community across the United States. One of the most important things about telling the story of industrial laundry workers is that people don’t realize that these workers exist. People don’t realize that industrial laundries exist and that they’re filled with hundreds of workers who work long shifts in dangerous conditions just so that you can have a cloth napkin and a tablecloth at the restaurant and a clean gown when you go to the hospital.
Assumedly the workers who are risking life and limb to clean your laundry for your restaurant or your hospital are making a living wage, given that the work is very dangerous and potentially hazardous to their health?
They do not make a living wage. Right now, laundry workers across Phoenix who were organized when my team and I were there between 2003 and 2006 are campaigning for a living wage. They work for companies that are now regional companies that are spread out over California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Labor Law in an Authoritarian Workplace
A lot of liberals and leftists have a basic understanding that US labor law is broken. But that idea is a pretty abstract one for most people who aren’t actively engaged in a union organizing drive. Your story paints a vivid picture of exactly how labor law and its brokenness impact the lives of union organizers and activists, as well as the maddening, heartbreaking injustice of the legal regime for workers who are trying to take collective action at work. Can you talk about how the state of American labor law impacted your organizing?
I said earlier that we decided that we were going to run a board strategy on the campaigns there, meaning that we were going to use the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The Board is the federal agency that is supposed to defend the rights that are laid out in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. It’s an old law, and over time it has suffered a kind of death by a thousand cuts.
The first cut was a pretty major one that caused the act to lose about half of its teeth, the rights that it was supposed to be upholding for workers. That was when the Taft-Hartley Act passed in 1947, just twelve years after the National Labor Relations Act. The other half of the latter that was not gutted by Taft-Hartley has just been slowly hacked at by shifts in the law and by legal precedent that further waters down or defangs labor law.
The state of labor law in this country is really disastrous for workers. It’s so loopholed you could drive a bus through it — and corporations do drive buses through those loopholes all the time today.
There are two things that surprise people who don’t know much about labor law. One is how long it takes to get anything done. How long it takes from the time you file for a union election until you have an election. How long it takes from the moment you file an unfair labor practice charge to have the charge investigated and go to complaint if the board investigator finds merit in it. How long it takes to actually have a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. How long it takes to actually get a decision from that administrative law judge. What happens if the company doesn’t want to comply with the administrative law judge’s decision (the next step of the process takes months or even years, not even including appeals that happen afterward). How long it takes for any kind of justice to come about through that system is one of the ways that it’s really broken.
The other way it’s really broken is that the justice that gets delivered is laughable. Alma was fired for leading a work stoppage to deliver a petition demanding that the company stopped breaking labor law. The company fired her, further breaking labor law. Months and months later, management was ordered to give her job back, which it did. There was no financial penalty. The company doesn’t have to pay any fine for breaking the law. It had to put a letter up in the plant saying: we broke the law in this way by firing Alma and some of her coworkers and we won’t do it again.
That’s it. That’s the stiffest penalty, the greatest justice that can be delivered through this system that we have currently. It’s disastrous. We see it playing out right now in campaign after campaign, happening all across the country in multiple sectors and regions. Which is not to say that the agents at the labor board are bad people, or that they’re doing a bad job. It’s the law that it is their job to uphold that is flimsy, loopholed, and in need of an overhaul.
Labor law almost seems like a principal character in your book’s narrative. So much of this narrative is about workers, you, and other organizers doing everything that you’re supposed to do in order to form a union and to exercise your right to collective action. Every step of the way, labor law and its brokenness enter into the narrative, prevent you from getting the justice that you very clearly deserve, make people’s lives miserable, and make union organizing tasks seem almost impossible time and time again.
Time is a weapon of the rich. It’s a white-collar weapon. The time that it takes to move labor law processes along is almost worse than the lack of any real penalty, because part of organizing is about momentum and excitement, it’s about people being willing to stand up and fight because they see that they have a vision for how things can get better if they do fight. With the time that it takes for the labor board process to actually get there, it’s really hard to maintain that kind of excitement, momentum, and solidarity.
There’s turnover in industrial laundries like there is in a lot of jobs. Workers who begin the organizing fight still don’t have a union a year later. They’re still fighting for the union. Time is a tool that bosses use to undercut momentum and union organizing drives, and it works really effectively.
The picture that you paint of what life was like for these workers is one that should be deeply disturbing, not only to anyone who cares about workers’ ability to organize a union, but anyone who cares about this country’s state of democracy. The story is in line with what scholar Elizabeth Anderson has described as “rule by authorities who tell the governed that the rules to which they are subject are none of their business. That they aren’t entitled to know about how their [workplace] operates. That they have no standing to insist that their interests be taken into account in how they are governed. That their rulers are not accountable to them.”
The American workplace is an authoritarian dictatorship. All basic democratic rights go out the window the moment that we punch the clock. Did the laundry feel like a dictatorship? How did this impact Alma, you, and the other organizers and workers in the book?
That’s an apt description of what I understood the reality to be inside the factory. The laundry was owned by this multibillion-dollar corporation. The corporation itself was shocked and surprised — it believed it hired very vulnerable people who it thought would never speak up, and it did that purposefully. When we started organizing, it shocked the company, especially the local management.
The company responded right away, sending in anti-union consultants. They showed a video called “Little Card, Big Trouble.” They held over two hundred captive-audience meetings to scare workers in the three weeks between us filing for an election and when the election actually took place. This corporate apparatus jumped into action to fight the union.
The local management is always an interesting factor in a campaign. They tend to be people who, in the overall corporation, don’t have a lot of power. They’re not the wealthy overlords that are reaping all of the profit off of these workers’ labor. They are bosses, certainly, but they aren’t the boss. The middle managers and their reaction to union organizing campaigns seem to be a piece of evidence in support of the argument that you just quoted.
Their reaction to union organizing didn’t really have to do with whether or not these workers should make more money, have better health insurance, have better personal protective equipment, or whether we ought to slow production down so that they can work a little safer. It had to do with power inside the plant. They are used to having all the power. They don’t want workers to have any power. They’re shocked that workers believe that they should have any power.
Their reaction is personal and angry and sometimes sad and hurt. Mainly that’s a performance. But it’s vicious, because it’s a question of power. It’s a question about whether or not a workplace ought to be a democracy. In their minds, it absolutely should not be. They can’t comprehend that anyone would believe that it should be. It’s a job.
You come here, we tell you what to do, we give you some money, you go the fuck home and shut up. That’s the way it’s supposed to be in American workplaces. The fact that anyone has the gall to think that it ought to be otherwise is shocking to bosses.
The flip side of that state of authoritarianism in the American workplace is that unions offer a kind of fuller citizenship to workers, a level of basic democratic empowerment that allows them to exercise some basic democratic freedoms like freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. A huge part of what you described throughout the book is the process of transforming a workforce that makes pitifully low wages, is marginalized and oppressed in American society generally because of their immigration status and/or limited ability to speak English, and is generally used as a source of exploitation and expected to keep their mouths shut.
That group of workers is transformed from being hyper-exploited and marginalized and in the lowest rungs of that workplace hierarchy, into something resembling fuller citizens in American society, better able to exercise their basic rights as human beings. Do you think of your work in this way as being democratic empowerment and citizenship cultivation?
Absolutely. From the very first organizing conversations, they’re really about asking people to imagine a different kind of workplace in which they have some power or agency, and asking them if they can see themselves as agents of a democracy in the workplace. Sometimes people begin to envision that in the first house call, especially with someone like Alma or some of the other worker leaders in that factory. Alma, by the end of that first house call, told me: I know what it means to fight. And she absolutely did. It didn’t take her very long to imagine herself as an active agent of a democratic structure inside the workplace.
But that’s not always the case. Sometimes what it takes is getting people to come to a union meeting and see themselves in a room with each other outside of work. Imagining a different kind of workplace and then imagining themselves as agents inside that different kind of workplace and the role that they would play. How things could change or would change or ought to change if they had more of a say at work. It’s a powerful experience for workers.
The Role of the Organizer
Let’s talk about the role of the organizer. Many leftist readings of American labor history emphasize that the weakened state of the American labor movement is not solely the result of the brutal repression and massive wealth and power of capital in the United States, but also the result of a labor movement that repeatedly shoots itself in the foot by organizing in an undemocratic way, or by internal union corruption, or by different unions fighting each other when they should have been uniting to fight the boss. I’ve often felt a bit ambivalent about articulating these critiques, because while they may be true, we should probably keep most of our focus zeroed in on the basic fact that bosses are the ones calling the shots in our society and determining conditions for workers, not corrupt or inept union leaders.
The boss is the principal villain in your book, but you also spend a lot of time talking about what’s wrong with unions themselves. The union that you’re a part of and another union that enters the scene end up playing very important roles in the shape of the campaign. Why was that intra-union critique an important focus in the book for you?
On that campaign, I couldn’t help but become fascinated with the practices and the culture of the union that I worked in. The language that we use to describe organizing, the fight, and the union itself became a weird obsession of mine, watching the way different organizers talked about it and the way workers themselves talked about it. The way they were different in different kinds of spaces became really important to me.
As a staff organizer, I am someone who aids in or is a conduit through which workers win their fights. Winning the fight meant that they were going to have a more democratic workplace, which meant that they were going to be agents in that democracy. A lot of union organizing campaigns that are heavily led by staff organizers — which I was then, as I still am — tend to be strong-armed or strongly led by staff organizers. I wonder what that means about the shape of the union that workers get to build or that they are building.
The question is how much of a democratic structure actually gets built through an exercise that is led by staff organizers. Are we replacing one authority, the boss, with another authority, the union in the workplace? Or are workers building a system in which they are active participants in the shape, scope, tone, color, and life of the organization itself? I think that is a real question. It’s a real question that organizers ought to ask themselves all the time in the work that they do.
We’re not perfect conduits. We’re agents in a process, but we are humans. We are who we are, so the language that we use and the practices that we embrace in organizing end up giving shape to the union that workers build, whether we want them to or not. As a young organizer, I was not taught or trained to examine those things. We should do more of that in labor organizing.
On the one hand, you’re very cognizant in the book that someone like you is very different from workers like Alma. On the other hand, you do have a very important role to play in a union organizing drive, especially given the maddeningly byzantine and authoritarian nature of labor law that you keep running up against in the book. Workers need an expert like you to guide them through this process. They need access to resources, like lawyers from the union who can figure out how to wage a legal fight against the boss, otherwise they wouldn’t stand a chance.
Do you still feel that ambivalence about the role of union staff like yourself after a multi-decade career in the labor movement?
The role of staff organizers is important for all the reasons that you just laid out. Workers need access to expertise, skill, experience, and resources. The role of staff organizers ought not be to lead the campaign. It has to be to figure out how to democratize the skills, experience, and knowledge that we have as quickly as possible — to get all of that into the hands, brains, and practices of worker leaders who will organize themselves and their coworkers and the industries in which they work to build power and democratic structures for themselves. We have to democratize the skills that we have and then get out of the way so that workers can do the work that they need to do to build their own organizations.
As a young organizer during the years about which I’m writing the book, I found a lot of the questions that I was having about my own role confusing. I didn’t know how to think about them. It was so personal, but it was not supposed to be personal. The stakes were really high, but I was supposed to be divested. The union was certainly an organization that I cared a lot about, and in spaces where I was with other staff organizers, we talked about the union as our union, the union that we worked for. When we were with workers, we talked about the union as their union, the union they were building.
There’s a lot of room for interrogation of that role inside of those spaces, and that wasn’t really happening at that point. The book, in some ways, was really just me a few years later trying to do all of that interrogation that I wasn’t accessing during the years of that campaign.
HERE and “Pink-Sheeting”
In the last third of the book, you spend a lot of time talking about the fallout of the merger between the union that you worked for when the book begins, UNITE, and another union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE), to form the union UNITE HERE. “Messy” is probably not strong enough of a word to describe what happened within the newly merged union and in the labor movement generally as a result of that merger, nor what happened to you.
This is an episode that has largely been forgotten in today’s labor movement. Even at the time when it happened, it’s unlikely that many people beyond those of us who were deeply involved in labor knew much about it. Can you lay out the basics of that merger and its subsequent undoing?
UNITE and HERE merged in a way that was surprising to organizers in both organizations. It happened quickly. The decision for the merger to happen came from on high in both organizations and was announced before almost anyone knew that it was going to occur.
Mergers like these have become extremely common within the labor movement in recent years, in large part because of labor’s weakness. The idea is that if you can’t grow the labor movement by organizing mass numbers of new workers, at least you can consolidate forces with other unions and hope that will allow you to keep the lights on.
Mergers have never been uncommon in the labor movement. The union that I worked for, UNITE, was the product of a previous merger. The Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU) was one of our four predecessor unions. You can follow the thread all the way back through dozens of mergers from smaller cloakmaker locals merging with tailors or cutters in the early garment worker days of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), which is the real root of UNITE, and now the union that I work for, Workers United. There have always been mergers. For the most part, they tend to go well, or at least they don’t get undone, which is what happened in the case of the UNITE-HERE merger.
One of the reasons that I’m particularly interested in telling this part of the story in the book is because it was a moment in which I, as an organizer, realized I was being trained inside a particular organizing culture. Before then, the training I was getting — the practices that I was learning and then putting into use on campaigns — didn’t feel like a culture to me. It didn’t feel like a particular methodology. It just felt like water, and I was a fish swimming through it. I didn’t notice it.
When the merger happened, there was another kind of organizing culture that I was confronted with, and it made me aware that we had our own culture inside of UNITE. The clash — and it was a clash, as you say; this was an ugly merger and it ended in an ugly divorce in 2009 — made me aware of some of the flaws of UNITE’s organizing culture and method.
Some of those come up in the story in the book where I had learned to guard myself from workers. We were not meant to be friends with workers. We were not really meant to have any part of our personal lives leak into the organizing work. That was seen as gauche or unacceptable in UNITE’s organizing culture. I didn’t abide by all of those rules — I certainly did become friends with Alma and a lot of the other workers. In fact, they knew more about me personally than some of the other organizers that I was working with in UNITE. But I didn’t notice how extreme that part of UNITE’s organizing culture was until I was confronted with HERE’s organizing culture, which was almost the opposite, which is one of the reasons that the merger went so badly.
There were other reasons, but I think that’s one of the reasons that it went so badly, at least on the organizing ground across the country. HERE organizers, at least the ones that I knew — I don’t think of HERE as a monolith in any way, there were other kinds of methods that were being used in locals across the country — were organizers who came to Phoenix to organize hotels and were very interpersonal, to a degree that I found alarming. People were using personal stories from their lives as a way to leverage relationships with workers and to bond with workers in this purposeful and systematic way that felt wrong to me. In this part of the book, I’m exploring the question of: did it feel wrong to me because the culture that I had learned was opposite to that, or was it really wrong? Was there something wrong with that way of organizing? The book lands on a little bit of both. There are flaws in both methods certainly.
As a reader, I was wildly frustrated narratively in that section, because for the first two thirds or so, we’re following the blow by blow of the organizing action, and it’s impossible for the reader not to be fervently hoping for a victory for these workers. Then right when it seems like we might be rewarded with this win by the underdog, this whole other union enters the scene and the two sides, UNITE and HERE, declare war on each other.
I was deeply involved in UNITE HERE at the time the merger took place. I had gotten involved in the union when I was an undergraduate, and that involvement led me to getting a low-wage retail job as my first job out of college in order to organize a union. That experience, along with everything else I saw at the UNITE HERE local, was extremely formative for me. I’m not an organizer anymore, but it helped give me a basic labor-focused worldview, somewhat of the mentality of the organizer in key ways, and an understanding of what it takes to actually make social change happen that’s stayed with me for the rest of my life.
On the other hand, I also had a very disturbing personal experience with the practices that you are describing, which are often called “pink sheeting.” The kind of probing that organizers subjected me to, trying to pry deeply personal details out of me to then use that information to get me to do whatever they wanted, definitely was abusive in hindsight. But being twenty-one years old, new to the labor movement, and astonished at the kind of worker power I was seeing being built around me, I felt pretty awful about what I was subjected to but didn’t think there was anything truly wrong with it.
But then, the then New York Times labor reporter, Steven Greenhouse, wrote a story entitled “Some Organizers Protest Their Union’s Tactics” that exposed some of these practices to the rest of the world. At that point, I realized that the problem wasn’t with me — the problem was with the union itself. The word “cult” became pretty unavoidable. That word comes up repeatedly in your book.
I was confronted with some pretty extreme practitioners of a pretty extreme wing of this method in Phoenix. The first of the two most alarming things that happened to me was a conversation with one of the HERE organizers who moved to Phoenix. When he was grilling me, I didn’t know that it was a test, but it absolutely was. He was testing my position inside of this method: if I was an adherent to it, if I was going to be able to absorb some of it, or take on some of it.
He asked me why I thought workers organized unions. I was caught off guard and didn’t give a very articulate answer, but it was something like, “because I want to change conditions at work and build power.” And he said, “No. The reason workers decide to fight to build unions is because they trust you as their leader.”
This connects pretty deeply to part of the discussion we were having earlier about workplace democracy. Are workers fighting to build a democracy at work? Is it available to them to imagine being agents in that democracy at work? Or are they following a different authority figure, another kind of leader?
And if they’ll do anything that that leader says, then this isn’t really a democracy. They aren’t really agents in their own in their own right. They’re just following a leader.
I thought a lot about that in the years after the narrative end of the book. That stuck with me. I thought about it all the time: why do workers fight for unions? He had this response so at the ready, and it was the “correct” response. It was alarming to me.
So that happened, and I don’t want to give away the end of the book, but Alma and I have a time in the book where our friendship is ruptured. We become really close with each other, and then that’s ruptured, and it has to do with this disaster of a merger. We end up on opposite sides of the fight that ensues as a result of the merger. I walked into the office at one point — I was no longer living and working day-to-day in Phoenix, I was working on other campaigns. And I saw Alma sitting in a circle of organizers that had been brought together to work on hotel organizing under the leadership of this HERE organizer that I just referenced.
He was asking a bunch of questions. Alma was there, along with a worker leader from another laundry that we organized after we won in Alma’s factory. They were sitting side by side, and both of them had their heads down and their hands in their laps, crying. I was so alarmed, I walked in and saw this staff meeting happening and I didn’t know what was going on. I just sat there and wouldn’t leave, because I was going to witness what was happening. The organizer got them all to stand up and go into another space in the office and close the door.
Alma wouldn’t even look at me the whole time, wouldn’t raise her eyes to make eye contact with me. It was really scary. I think those were some of the more extreme practices being carried out by some extreme practitioners of this method. It seemed as though some real damage was being done to this union that we had fought tooth and nail to build. I was pissed about it.
I suppose this would be an answer to the question of why anyone should engage in intra-union critique at a time when bosses are so clearly in the driver seat and overwhelmingly hold the power in society. It is because if these kinds of practices are happening within the labor movement, they can destroy everything that you have worked so hard to build, and can prevent you from building the kind of fighting organization that can actually win.
I think what you said earlier about there not being a lot of books that dig into this kind of subject matter in the labor movement is true. One of the reasons is that we don’t want to create texts, documents, or literature that bosses can use to fight the union. We don’t like to air our dirty laundry for that reason, because the stakes are high. The power that bosses and corporations have is real. We have to show a united front at all times because the work of the labor movement is crucial.
On the other hand, I don’t know how to write about something I love that is flawed and write only praise. I just can’t do it. I don’t know that writing only praise about the labor movement, knowing that it’s flawed in some ways, does anyone any good.
You describe you, your coworkers at the union, and the rank-and-file worker activists on the union committee as “going to war” several times in the book. The conditions that you experienced during the union drive seem to support this characterization. To extend the metaphor, going to war would make you all soldiers. And soldiers often come back from war with post-traumatic stress disorder. They’re traumatized by the things that they’ve seen.
Taking stock of everything that you describe in the book, did you and the other union organizers like you and union activists like Alma have some version of scarring from throwing everything that you had at the boss, as well as this very bruising intra-union conflict that you went through?
A lot of people who were involved in that merger fight as union staff left the labor movement. Some of them, like me, are returning to the labor movement in some capacity, but it was traumatizing and deeply scarring. I’ve talked with a lot of people who worked in UNITE — as organizers, researchers, legal staff, and the admin staff during that time —who read my book and said it was hard to read, and that it felt like it was revealing to them this experience that they had tried hard to forget.
But even for organizers and workers who have to go through really hard fights, there’s not a lot of time to recoup in the labor movement. The fight is never quite over. You roll right into the next fight, and it’s exhausting. We don’t create much space for rest and care. We should get better at that. For workers too — a lot of the time you go through a yearslong fight to win a union, and then to go through a fight to win a contract, and then to have to go through a fight to train your bosses and managers how to abide by the contract that you’ve just won.
The fight is never quite over. It’s never time to stop expressing the collective power that you have built at work, or it will diminish and go away. The moment you stop demonstrating the union, it starts to lose its power, it starts to diminish. I think that it’s hard to confront that reality.
Too often, when workers and organizers begin a fight, we think that there will be a day which we win. There are victories that happen along the way, and they ought to be celebrated. We should do a better job celebrating than we do sometimes. But the fight just has to become life, because the moment you stop fighting or expressing the power of the union in the workplace, it goes away.
In the book I use the terms “war,” “fight,” and “battle,” and there’s a lot of military language and metaphor. That’s the language I was taught to use as an organizer. I was taught that the main emotion that has enough power to override the fear that people feel when they’re organizing is anger or rage. Those emotions seem readily available when the frame around the whole fight is a frame of war.
In the book I asked myself as the narrator to think hard about that language and the use of rage as a main fuel for a fight. I don’t think it’s sustainable, because there isn’t really a day on which you win and you get to go home and just relax and the workplace changes and you don’t have to continue fighting over grievances or getting ready for the next contract or if a machine breaks or a fire happens and they ask you to work through it and you have to refuse. There’s never a moment at which it’s over. You have to continue. The idea of having a “forever war” is impossible to think about and unfair to ask. So if the fight is a fight that never ends, we have to think about it in a different way. People don’t want to fight their entire lives.
I think there are other emotions that are just as strong as anger in getting over fear, and those emotions are not often brought into the frame of the organizing campaign. They should be. We should be talking about organizing as a form of mutual aid, as a form of care, as a form of community building and defense of the beloved community. Because then suddenly it seems like what I’m doing with life is not fighting, is not endless war. What I’m doing is building. What I’m doing is a creative act of community life.
Not to mention that if anger is the principal fuel for the organizing drive, and the boss is able to drag things out for so long over time and you’re thus forced to keep your level of anger up at very high levels in order to keep fueling the day-to-day work of organizing, then the only people who will stick around for the length of such a fight are people who are addicted to anger, which is not exactly a recipe for a happy and well-rounded human being who is a part of this fight. What the labor movement is trying to do is to be a life-giving force. Being populated by people who are fueled mostly by anger is not a good way to do that.
That’s right. Anger certainly has a place. Agitation is an important piece of organizing. Workers are angry about the conditions under which they work, the lack of access to health insurance, and the authoritarian nature of the workplace. People are generally pissed about that. We don’t want to gloss over the anger, because it’s there.
There is a righteous anger that exists that is an important spark to a fight. There’s a place for that in the first committee meeting of an organizing drive, where people realize that they’re pissed and they’re pissed about the same stuff I’m pissed about, the same thing that a hundred other people here are pissed about. There’s power in that. We’re going to build an organization that’s going to change that thing that we’re all pissed about. That’s awesome and it should happen.
But by the fifth or sixth committee meetings that you have in an organizing drive, the tone of those can and should be different. That should be a space where people have kids there who are sitting at a table in the corner working on a craft or having a snack; you’re bringing food together and there’s a potluck, and somebody’s cousin’s mariachi band is playing. People are laughing together and joking, because they know each other, and they trust each other, and they care about each other. That’s the fuel that’s going to get you through the rest of the fight.
Unions Can Make Miracles Happen
The principal reason that we need to rebuild the labor movement, is because it’s absolute essential to making a more equal and democratic world. But reading your book, I also felt that a reason to organize your union with your coworkers is that it can spark an experience of radical personal transformation for those who engage in it.
For many of them, the building of the kind of beloved community that you’ve been talking about is something that they have never experienced in their life before. But to get to that point, you have to push yourself to interact with coworkers in new ways, find courage within yourself to confront the boss who has made your life hell, figure out how to build a common project with people who are very different from you, overcome barriers like racial hostility between different kinds of workers, linguistic barriers, boss favoritism, and all the other things that come up in a union drive.
But if you can manage to pull that off, you can transform the power relations of your workplace. You can topple the authoritarian dictatorship that you were subjected to. That’s a miracle. That’s an incredible human achievement. So it seems like one argument for why one should get involved in the labor movement is that through the labor movement, miracles are possible.
The miracle that is possible is a personal one, but it’s also a public and communal one. You see your community change. You see your community grow its capacity to fight and to care for itself. You are changed by watching the capacity of your community change. There’s a cyclical transformation that happens between your individual capacity growing, your own availability for agency changing, and watching that feed into the community and its capacity for change.
That stuff can never be taken away. Even if you lose the union fight, even if three years later the union gets decertified, even if you don’t win the contract that you ought to win — the fair contract that gets you to a living wage — the transformation part can’t ever be taken away.
In union organizing drives that I’ve been involved in, both successful ones and ones that we’ve lost, worker leaders’ lives tend to change. They divorce abusive partners. They run for local office. They end up being leaders in their church or in their community. They found community organizations that are mutual aid organizations. They are leaders on the PTO at school. They take on other kinds of leadership positions in their community because they understand their own agency in a different way.
There’s one point in the book where you are describing a group of female workers who create a phone tree to help each other with a major issue in their lives that is not taking place on the factory floor: one worker’s experience of domestic violence at the hands of a man. One of the workers calls the phone tree and activates the group of women to come to her aid. Three women coworkers show up at her house with baseball bats.
The abuser had left by that point, but you write — speaking to Alma in the second person, as you do throughout the book — “on the way back to your house that night, you were wired. Your eyes burnished with the adrenaline of the missed confrontation. You said, ‘the company can do what they want with their recognition. We already have our union.’”
That seems like an incredible example of the kind of miraculous transformations that spring out in all kinds of directions that come from that initial experience of organizing at the workplace.
The building of that community was one of the most amazing parts of the years that I spent in Phoenix. A number of the worker leaders didn’t even all work at Alma’s factory. These are workers that got to know each other across factories in Phoenix because of the organizing fights that they were all helping each other through, realized that they were all dealing with some form of domestic violence at home and didn’t want to put up with it anymore, and they were going to work together to defend each other. They created a phone tree that was a rapid response system where if someone was in trouble, they would call the phone tree and show up for each other at their houses or their apartments to confront an abuser.
The phone tree got activated that night. Alma called me in the middle of the night, and I went to pick her up and take her to this woman’s house. There was no confrontation with the abuser that happened that night. But I think Alma’s ability to understand that what we’re doing right now is the union. We’ll get to bargain a contract someday with the boss, or we won’t, but we’re not going to let anyone fuck with us anymore.
After I wrote a review of your book in the New Republic, I put out a call on Twitter for people who had experienced deeply personal transformations as a result of their involvement in a union drive. I thought I was going to get maybe eight or nine emails, but I received nearly one hundred from people all over the country who wanted to share their stories ranging from low-wage workers to very well-paid ones — white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, workers of all types. It seems like it’s a widespread phenomenon that people who are involved in union drives find themselves being deeply changed by them in the ways that you’ve just described.
The authoritarian nature of the workplace is real in that the boss has power and workers generally do not have any power. There is a true authoritarian structure, but there’s also a way in which it’s a performance or a dream, and people can wake up from it, wake up from the feeling that this is how it ought to be, has to be, or will always be. Once you wake up from that, you can’t go back to the way it was before.
I think of union organizing in much that way. The stakes are high. It’s important to win campaigns because workers are putting a lot at risk when they organize. But even in the cases where you lose, you have a whole group of people who have decided that it’s not necessarily an inherent fact of life that you have to go to work in an authoritarian regime. No matter where they work, if they continue at that workplace or they go to work at another place, they’re going to carry that with them. The more organizing we do across the country, the more people there will be who don’t just take it as a given that work means that you’re giving up any autonomy, any notion of a democratic self or society.
You are now the head of organizing for the Starbucks Workers United campaign. This campaign is now experiencing a level of boss pushback that is, on the one hand, very distinct from the kind of union busting that you experienced and that you write about in On the Line. But on the other, that union-busting effort really doesn’t feel all that different from what you experienced and what you wrote about in your book. Would you say that’s correct?
Yeah, it’s a vicious fight. They’re pulling from the same playbook as laundry bosses, as textile bosses, as hotel bosses. It’s a nasty fight. They’re threatening to close stores. They’re closing stores that they unionize. They’re firing worker leaders. As of [September 2022], there are 112 union leaders who have been fired in this campaign across the country. Howard Schultz, the interim returning CEO of the company, said on national television in an interview that he never saw a future for Starbucks in which he was going to recognize and deal with the union. From the top down, the culture of the company is just ferociously anti-union. It’s an ugly fight and these workers are really in the fight of their lives for a contract right now.
The boss is drawing out this fight. It seems like Starbucks’s strategy may be to just act in open defiance of established labor law. Desiccated though the law is, pro-boss though it is, it’s clear that workers, having organized unions in hundreds of stores across the country at this point, should be able to negotiate a contract Yet the corporation is standing in open defiance. You hear from someone like Schultz — who was floated as a possible candidate for Labor Secretary under Hillary Clinton in 2016 — this willingness to openly flaunt that labor law.
What’s your experience been in trying to maintain that sense of the new community or the beloved community that we have been talking about, to create a real alternative to the authoritarian dictatorship of the workplace at Starbucks? Have you been able to maintain that despite being up against a very large and important global corporation that is throwing everything that it has at you?
This campaign continues to grow every day, miraculously, in the face of threats and bribes. They are saying that they will give new benefits and pay raises to stores only if they don’t unionize or even begin the process of unionization. They’re firing people, they’re closing stores, and yet the campaign continues to grow. Still, every week, workers at new stores file to have union elections. They’ve won union elections at over 250 stores. There are over 6,200 unionized Starbucks workers across the country now in thirty-three states. It continues to grow even in the face of this vicious anti-union campaign.
Part of that is because this campaign really is different from any campaign that I’ve supported before. That’s the way I feel about it at this point. I’m the national field director of the campaign, and I have the great fortune of being able to support these workers in building their union, and on the ground, that’s the way it feels. That’s the way workers relate to the campaign. That’s the way they talk about the campaign. They are learning the skills to organize themselves and then help other Starbucks workers organize their stores. It’s the most worker-driven campaign I’ve ever worked on.
One of the interesting things about the Starbucks campaign is that Starbucks offers itself up to the public as this progressive corporation with this great benefits package (which most workers cannot access). They have as part of their health care package — if you are lucky enough to get enough hours for enough weeks in a row to be able to access it — gender-affirming surgery. The stores become these spaces where there are a ton of queer workers and trans folks working there.
Because of that, in lots of stores across the country, the beloved community already exists. These workers all know each other, they talk to each other. They’re really closely connected. They’re very good friends. From the beginning of the campaign, it’s already a community defense project. That’s one of the reasons that the campaign has been able to spread so quickly across the country, because the beloved community already exists in store after store.
One of the first anti-union tactics that the company employed was to cut hours to drive people out of the stores, to disrupt that community, because they realized that’s what’s going on. These people are so close knit, it’s going to be easy for them to organize, unionize, and stand up for each other and stick together, even through captive-audience meetings, firings, threats, bribes, and all of the stuff that the company is throwing at them. I think the company’s theory on the campaign is just as you say: they’re going to continue to violate the law to try to scare workers, to try to kill the momentum of the movement that they are building. They are trying to kill momentum so that they can wait out the certification year, and then they’re going to actively try to run the decertification petitions and elections at store after store.
The workers themselves are very well-aware of this. They talk about it all the time. They’re very aware of the necessity to keep the union inside their stores as strong as possible, even as they’re working to organize new stores. It’s kind of a duality to the project at all times. Keep the union healthy in your own store and organize as many other stores as you can moving forward because they know that that’s how they’re going to win. Continue organizing and stay strong.
Labor’s History, Labor’s Future
Your book is a personal memoir about union organizing, but there is a thread throughout the book about labor history in the United States. You have some very extended sections on the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. This is a part of the history of your union. It is important to tell that story not only because labor history is not something that many people are aware of in this country, but also because it’s clear that the horrifying details that are part of something like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire — in which 146 workers burned to death or jumped out the window of their factory in New York City and died — is not history, in that it isn’t over.
The workers that you’re describing organizing in the book are dealing with new versions of this same system that treats their bodies as totally dispensable, as if they can be just tossed into a meat grinder and spit out. You’re continuing that fight that established your predecessor union, through fights like the industrial laundry struggles in early twenty-first century in Arizona, to Starbucks today. There’s an unbroken chain of labor history that is still being written in this country and around the world that you, the workers in the book, and the Starbucks workers who you’re organizing now are a part of. Do you feel that?
As a union organizer in UNITE, part of my job was to connect workers with the history of the union. Unions really like to create their own lore and mythology, and it’s important to their identity and their sense of importance and longevity. I was taught as a young organizer to tell the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and I told it so many times that it wasn’t this thing that had happened a hundred years ago. It’s a live artifact that was very much part of the present-day organizing campaign. I write in the book that I always have had a hard time telling that story and not being really emotionally moved by it. I never quite had the talent of standing up in front of a bunch of people and telling the story in a cool remove. It hurts me to talk about it. I get really emotional every time I think about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
But I wondered at the time that I wrote the book and sometimes when I was telling the story in front of groups of laundry workers, what does it mean that I’m telling this story in this way? What does it mean that I’m telling the story of the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand, which is another formative event in the ILGWU, that Clara Lemlich got hoisted up onto a stage in Cooper Union and called for a general strike? She was this anonymous wisp of a girl, and the next day fifteen thousand people followed her into the street. What does it mean to tell stories of absolute tragedy and absolute heroics in that way in front of a group of workers who are trying to decide whether or not they’re going to try to form a union? It was like a puzzle to me. I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to mean.
Was it supposed to be inspiring to workers in the room to say: a hundred years ago, this young woman who was an immigrant stood up on the stage and people followed her into the street in this general strike? I don’t think it came off that way. I don’t think it ever had that effect. It wasn’t inspiring; workers did not think: “I could do that tomorrow. I could stand up on a stage and call for a general strike and people will follow me to the streets.”
In fact, I thought it did a real disservice to the labor movement to tell the story in that way, decontextualized from the hard work of organizing in which Clara Lemlich was deeply involved. She’d been organizing for years and had already built strike committees at hundreds of garment factories across New York City. Everyone in that hall knew who she was when she stood up on the stage to call for the general strike, and they knew she was going to call for a strike. That’s why they came to the meeting.
Telling the story that decontextualized all of that tough work of organizing, I didn’t understand the purpose of it. So here I am now, years later, helping to lead the organizing of the Starbucks campaign, and in initial meetings of workers I was telling them about Workers United, an offshoot of ILGWU. I find myself again in spaces where I’m telling the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire because it’s at the root of the union that these workers are joining. Many Starbucks workers across the country have now heard the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.
When I was telling the story to laundry workers, it had one kind of resonance to me, and that is that industrial laundries in the United States are weird in that they have a soil sort department, which is where Alma worked. They have a place where workers have to deal, via their bodies, with the soiled linen that’s coming in. In a lot of other parts of the world, that’s not true. Outside the United States in industrial laundries, the linen comes in and goes right into the washing machine and then they have a “clean sort.” The linen doesn’t get sorted until it’s clean and much healthier and safer for workers to be handling. But of course, that’s a lot harder on the washing machine because of all the crap in the linen, how tightly it’s wadded together, or the leftover surgical instruments in it. It takes a toll on the machines, and machines have to be replaced much more frequently.
Here in the United States, we put that burden on the bodies of workers. Their bodies are supposed to absorb that hazard and protect the machines from it.
So in that way, telling the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire resonated to me in terms of the absolute danger that workers face on a day to day basis. There are a lot of workplace injuries that happen inside Starbucks stores that I think people don’t think a lot about. There are a lot of repetitive motion injuries. There’s slip-and-fall injuries or burns that happen. But the part of the story now that really feels resonant to me on this campaign is the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand.
The way the union that I work for was actually formed in the early part of last century was that a lot of young people — many of them women, a lot of them teenagers or in their early twenties — started organizing shop by small shop across the city. They realized that if they were ever going to improve conditions in the industry, they had to strike. They had to strike together. The only way that they won that strike was by a massive amount of community solidarity and consumer or customer solidarity. The women who bought and wore those shirtwaists had to show up on the picket line and support those workers. Here we are, 117 years later, and we have young people organizing shop by small shop all across the country. What it’s going to take to win is a hell of a lot of pickets and a hell of a lot of community support.