The Organizing Life, Warts and All

Wade's World

            Pearl River     I read Daisy Pitkin’s book, On the Line:  A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union” quickly when the publisher sent it along, and after a couple of misconnections and fumbled dates, we talked recently on Wade’s World.  As an organizer reading an organizer’s tales, I had some mixed feelings.

            On the high side, it was frank, truthful, and revealing from the eyes of a fledgling organizer learning the work with the tedium and excitement of its ups and downs.  The victories were real, difficult, and exhilarating.  The defeats and internal conflicts within the union were equally real, difficult, depressing, and painful.  I told Daisy I couldn’t tell if this book was supposed to encourage or discourage people from signing up for the work, but, of course, I know this was simply her story along with others, and she meant to reveal, neither advertising or dashing prospects for others.   On the other side, it was personal, very personal.  This was a level of sharing that goes way over the invisible line that most organizer’s draw about their own lives.  We’re in the back, not the front.  We whisper in the ears a thousand times for the few times we have to speak outright.  At the same time, it’s riveting and honest, so it works; hello brave new world.

            Not surprisingly, relationships are important to Daisy, particularly the one she built over time with Alma, the leader of the laundry organizing drive, and eventually for a time, an organizer herself.  There’s some irony here because the conflict Daisy experienced after the merger of her union Unite into Unite HERE was over the perversion of relationships through the fabricated sharing that some organizers use to create personal, rather than organizational, bonds with workers, especially potential leaders and members.  Alma went in and out of her life during this period before coming back, seemingly establishing how work trumps relationships, even if they can later be revived.  Daisy’s explication of the almost cultish sect of this wing of HERE, so different from the universally admired Culinary 226 in Las Vegas, tells an important story here from an organizer’s standpoint that was reported differently in The New York Times years ago.

            On the organizing front, especially given the current surge of NLRB elections, the book is a case study on tough, hard organizing campaigns.  The big Phoenix laundry workers’ drive was lost, then won a rare Gissel bargaining order because of the many unfair labor practices, forcing bargaining without an election, but in another twist, the union agreed to a card check, which she only managed to win in the last hours before the deadline.  Daisy’s blend of “just the facts, ma’am” and how as a young woman she reacted personally to them is refreshing and captivating.

            At the end of the book, it seemed that Daisy’s life as an organizer had both inspired and matured her, but also pushed her away on another path.  I was delighted to find that she is back as one of the dozen or so organizers for Workers’ United / SEIU working on the Starbucks campaign.  She reported that they have now won 140 elections and will have won 150 in another week and filed for 300 elections, only losing 14 with 6 still tied up at the Board on objections.  She’s honored to be a part of something that is building a union as it organizes, rather than just trying to win an election.

            Now that’s a happy ending!