Pearl River It has been many minutes since I have run into Ellen Bravo, but I welcomed the chance to do so again, this time on Wade’s World. Ellen has been in the work for decades, coming to wide attention when she was the director of 9-to-5, the National Association of Working Women, for a decade after the movie that also advanced their work. She more recently had helped found and direct an organization called Family Values at Work, advocating for child care, paid family leave, and paid sick days, often successfully.
The excuse for our conversation was a book she had recently written with her husband Larry Miller, titled Standing Up: Tales of Struggle. These are two life-long activists. Miller more recently has been a teacher in Milwaukee and one of the editors of the Rethinking Education newsletter which is an invaluable resource for organizers and others contenting with education issues in our school. Knowing that and reading the title, most readers would think they are about to read case studies of actions and organizing, but they would only be about half right.
Standing Up is actually a novel, but a different kind of novel. Many of the stories are based on factual events. The two main characters are interestingly, and maybe for some of us who know them even uncomfortably, based on Ellen and Larry. The conversations don’t claim to be verbatim obviously. Other characters are composites. Some of the tales were theirs and others came out of their organizing experiences. Their strategy – and hope – was that presenting these stories of their life and work in the form of a novel might plant some seeds in readers who might not have come to them otherwise on the usual bookstore shelves, and thereby missing what they teach about daring to struggle and daring to win. Tim Sheard, their publisher at Hard Ball Press, has been a master of this strategy to his credit as well.
The title story in many ways says it all. Standing up was a brilliant tactic devised by a group of women workers in a call center, which could have been anywhere. They were tethered to their headsets, switchboards, and computers screens throughout their shifts and so closely monitored by their supervisors that getting the least break was often a struggle in itself. A few of the women, dissatisfied with these working conditions, decided that after being almost literally chained to their desk chairs, that they would all stand up for one minute. They would still be working, headsets fired up, and handling customer service, but, by damn, they would stand up for a change. The few were joined by many, a majority of the 150 workers. Management went crazy of course, not because this was against any formal rule, since the bosses had never imagined this situation, but because of the power and solidarity involved. No spoiler alert here, because just through that collective action, we all know they have won and changed that workplace forever, no matter.
I always say that I don’t “put sugar in the coffee”, but Bravo and Miller have sweetened the coffee well in these stories that arrive at a good time and hopefully find welcome readers.