On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union
by Daisy Pitkin
Algonquin Books, 2022, 288 pp.
For American workers, as Mike Davis once argued, defeat compounds defeat, creating an ever-growing legacy of working-class organizations that either shatter or become compromised—racist, or corrupt, or ossified and bureaucratic, or in bed with their enemies, or tiny and weak. These organizations transmit their historical damage onto the subsequent generation; each cohort navigates a set of impossible choices and gives shape to the impossible choices facing the next one. Individual activists, militants, and organizers must confront these legacies, which play out not just within their organizations but within themselves. Yet on rare occasions, workers find an opening and the room to run, and summon the courage to pursue it. In the process, they may transform an existing organization, shoving it in a new direction, or they may shake it off like dead skin and create something new.
Never knowing how close you are to such a moment, and always hoping to survive long enough to find one, people trying to build the labor movement live out the oddest combination of griminess and exaltation. Dedicated to the highest principles—the cause of labor is the hope of the world—you may find yourself engaging in manipulation, deception, and intimidation. Wishing only to help the working class project its voice, you hear yourself telling someone to hush up: not right now, wait for a more opportune moment, stick to the talking points. Driven by a desire to draw out and celebrate the endurance, intelligence, and care that bind ordinary people to each other and endow them with world-shaking strength, you betray people you love—people you have spent years begging to trust each other, and to trust you.
Sometimes—rarely—it works: trust is met with trust, love with love, strength with strength. A group of workers fights and wins, and the world begins to transform. Stranger still, they find they too have transformed, which may be more important than the wages and protections they have won. Here is the exaltation: when they forge solidarity and surmount innumerable obstacles, people become greater than themselves. Afterward, you look back on yourself and scarcely recognize the tiny, guarded self you were before. (Later, stumbling through another struggle, you will find that you are not nearly so unencumbered as you believed in this ecstatic moment; beyond the summit of this first peak was a valley, and then another, higher ridge.)
Solidarity is rapturous when it flowers, though its root system is down among ordinary people muddling through and doing their best under conditions not of their choosing. For this reason one can only be struck by its sheer sublimity, as a terrifying force of compulsion vastly larger than the individual. This sublimity is what makes organizing so difficult to capture and represent. Unable to channel its terrible passions yet not wishing to betray the cause, the writer—or scholar, or composer, or director, or painter, or photographer—reduces it to simple heroics or learnable lessons, or avoids it altogether. But in On the Line, Daisy Pitkin has figured out how to look with both eyes—to inhabit both sides of the contradiction—and the result is easily one of the best books ever written about American trade unionism. Reading it, I wept.
The basis of the book—more or less a memoir—is simple enough: Pitkin’s years organizing laundry workers for the union that was UNITE in the early 2000s, UNITE HERE in the mid to late 2000s, and Workers United from the 2010s to present. The campaigns are exemplary, not unique. Her successes and setbacks should be recognizable to any organizer. This is partly why the book is useful: Pitkin digs deep into an ordinary fight in an ordinary place by ordinary people who are constantly fucking up, coming up short, disappointing one another and themselves, and forging something of great power in the process. Pitkin learns not to
think of power as a finite sum, a thing that is acquired by wresting it away—however forcefully—from the powerful, as if the work of organizing were akin to cleaving an orange, or as if the substance of solidarity were the same as the substance of oppression. What I mean is that I no longer think that worker power originates with the boss, or that workers come by it by taking it away from the company where they work. Worker power is built and waged through an entirely separate system.
On the Line, written in the second person, is almost epistolary. Pitkin addresses the book to Alma, a worker in the soil-sort department of a Sodexho laundry factory in Phoenix, Arizona. (I will call Pitkin by her first name, Daisy, when referring to her as a character in the story, and as Pitkin when describing the author.) “You were our first contact at that laundry because your husband was the cousin of the shop steward (the person elected by their coworkers to defend their collective bargaining agreement and represent them in dealing with the boss) at the one union laundry in Phoenix, Mission Linen,” she writes to Alma. “I knocked on your door with Manuel a few days into the preparation work we were doing. It was one of the first times I’d been on a union house call.” Alma was ready. “Your grandfather had been part of the land struggles in Mexico; your father led copper mine strikes in Sonora. You said, I know what it means to fight.”
A new organizer often finds her footing only after encountering a worker who knows what it means to fight, whose courage and clarity can begin to persuade the organizer that she is not forcing workers forward but accompanying them. Alma plays this role for Daisy. After they meet, the organizing director presses Daisy and her colleague Manuel to explain why they trusted Alma enough to drop the subterfuge that often characterizes an early-stage campaign. “Manuel kept saying, I trust her, I trust her, and Don’t worry. We’re not going to get made. The director didn’t ask me—I was new, and she didn’t know if I was any good at reading a person, the way organizers learn to do.” Soon Alma steals a list of workers’ names from a bulletin board, proving herself at the tradecraft of organizing. Daisy, meanwhile, is certain she has been spotted while tailing a laundry truck: “I imagined having to tell you that I’d fucked up, that I’d gotten us made while following a truck, that there would be no union in the factory after all.”
This moment, like so many in On the Line, is about how badly the professional organizer needs the rank-and-file worker, although it might appear to be the opposite. The professional organizer has more authority and social status. Daisy, white and college-educated, learns that her colleagues from the rank and file have been placing bets on how long she will stick around before being promoted out. Pitkin is reflective about this hierarchy but counterposes it to her own vulnerability before the workers. She is desperate to do right by them, to know them and be known across the divides of race, class, and language. She treads uncertainly around the question of her openness before the people she is supposed to give strength. At one point she tells the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire at a training with so much intensity that her voice breaks. (The legacy of the fire and the garment workers’ struggles were central to the identity of UNITE, a direct descendant of the garment workers’ unions.) Laundry workers know about workplace danger, including burn risk. Daisy is told by colleagues to leave out the fire next time.
“I believed in this system (I believe in it and teach it still today),” Pitkin writes of the union’s more clinical organizing methodology. “But I’m not sure the trick of moving people without being moved, of telling stories meant to evoke emotion that I, the teller, was not meant to feel, helped to make the union (or me, or anyone) any stronger. After all, unions are built on solidarity, and solidarity is a form of closeness, maybe even intimacy, a network of deep connection that rewires a splintered collective.” Again it is Alma who reaches Daisy. After dinner on the last day of the training, in the moment reserved for final questions and announcements, Alma recalls a phrase uttered by Daisy earlier—“the will to fight”—and asks where it comes from. “Everyone is afraid, you said. So what is it that pushes some people across the threshold of fear? Is it all rage? you wondered. Is it courage? Are the ones who fall down in their fear too afraid or just not angry enough?” Daisy will return to the moment many times.
Threaded throughout the book are two motifs running parallel to the story of Daisy and Alma. One is the struggle of their union predecessors in the early twentieth century, garment workers like Clara Lemlich, the young woman who took the stage at a mass meeting in 1909 in Cooper Union to call for a halt to the blather and the initiation of an industrywide strike. Leading the assembled workers in a traditional Yiddish oath—“If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may this hand wither from the arm I now raise”—Lemlich triggered the event known as the Uprising of the 20,000 and launched herself into labor movement legend. (Pitkin points out that, as with Rosa Parks’s moment of disobedience, this stylized myth of spontaneous heroics obscures the slow preparatory work that allowed it to succeed.) But over time the men took over the union, marginalizing the women who’d built it. Pauline Newman, another leader of the early years, wrote, “We learned that there is a mysterious bond between working sisters . . . and we only wished that devotion and sisterhood would have more opportunity to lift its head.” Pitkin observes her own reaction to Newman’s words:
As I read this passage, my first response is Amen, or even Amen, sister, as women in unions tend to call each other. Pauline writes of a bond here to which I certainly aspired but on which I mainly trespassed. I was not a “working sister,” and locating myself in this we, in this long history of women in the union, is a complex exercise—I managed to end up on both sides of at least a few locked doors. (And if this writing is a practice of longing for an uncomplicated we or for a we that is not in need of ongoing examination, let it resist any telling that pretends one could exist.)
The second thread, presented somewhat unaccountably at first, is moths—metamorphic, fluttering, curious, flame-seeking, self-destroying things in which Daisy sees herself. Throughout her time in Phoenix, she has dreams about moths covering her body, even before heavy rains cause massive swarms of them to appear. Soon, while driving around Phoenix looking for workers to sign up, Alma and Pitkin start calling themselves las polillas (the moths) and talk about getting matching moth tattoos. Alma tells Daisy moths are messengers and affectionately calls her polillita. Throughout the book, Pitkin muses about moths and shares bits of entomology: How do they navigate? Why do they fly toward light? And most of all, what is the meaning of their metamorphosis, their violent and complete self-digestion and emergence in new form? The moth mirrors back at Pitkin the more-than-human quality of her organizing work, the paradoxical way that an organizer must become such a concentrated version of herself that she crosses over and turns into something alien.
The campaign at Sodexho—Daisy’s first real fight—takes off in a thrilling sprint. “We moved very fast,” Pitkin writes. “A worker would sign a card and then get in the car with us to go to another worker’s house, that worker would call another worker over to her house, and we’d hold an impromptu meeting. . . . By Saturday, workers who had already signed were calling to direct us to the homes of workers who had not yet signed but wanted to.” Like no other chronicler of workplace organizing I’ve ever read, Pitkin brings the reader into the complex movement of the organizing conversation itself—seeking trusting connection, but with an instrumental purpose and on a tight timetable. She shows herself and Alma both learning in parallel, albeit in different ways, how to connect, how to push, and how to lead. By the time they reach majority, Alma, like Clara Lemlich, is standing on a platform in front of her coworkers, swearing to fight “hasta las últimas consecuencias.”
Then come the consequences. The company fires Alma and several other workers almost instantaneously when they stop work and lead a delegation to management to demand recognition. A manager claims to have been shoved by a worker during the action. In this acrimonious environment, the union loses the National Labor Relations Board election, despite the majority who’ve signed cards. Later, in the ensuing unfair labor practice proceedings initiated by the union, the employer puts workers on the stand to lie through their teeth. One worker, Luz, makes up a story about Daisy threatening her.
When she finished testifying, she had to leave the witness stand by passing through the narrow space [by me], which she did in a hurried scramble, as if she were afraid that I would lunge at her. This was hard to see. I did not want her to be afraid of me; it ran counter to my intention, and it troubled my idea of the position I was inhabiting, which was to be on the side of you and your coworkers. . . . I said out loud, Está bien, Luz.
Alma is less forgiving.
For their part, the bosses testify that Alma and her coworkers were not fired (this would be illegal retaliation) but permanently replaced (legal during a work stoppage). “El Mero Mero and La Sandra [the bosses, as nicknamed by the workers] both testified that the moment you left your workstations, a former worker happened to call the factory, and that she also happened to have, right there in her living room, three friends who were looking for work,” Pitkin writes. “La Sandra told them to come right down to the plant, that it appeared several soil-sort positions had just become available. They testified that three people showed up and then interviewed for and accepted the positions, all while the work stoppage raged on.” An incredulous judge has to keep reminding them they are under oath.
To prosecute the case is itself an organizing feat given how few workers wish to testify, but the union wins. The board takes the unusual remedial step of ordering Sodexho to proceed directly to union recognition, since company behavior has already destroyed any possibility of a fair election. But the company appeals, a process bound to take years. Adding insult to injury, Alma is forced to accept a degrading offer to come back to work in a worse job—UNITE’s lawyers say it will hurt the case if she refuses. She returns, a pariah among the defeated and demoralized workers.
From here, the story spirals outward, growing much larger than Daisy and Alma. UNITE merges with HERE, the hotel workers’ union. UNITE, a textile and garment industry holdover, has money but shrinking membership and jurisdiction, while HERE has growing membership and jurisdiction but no money. UNITE President Bruce Raynor wants to run a bigger union with more clout nationwide; HERE President John W. Wilhelm wants to expand his organizing capacity. In Phoenix, strange new organizers arrive from HERE in New Haven, arrogant products of the graduate student union at Yale looking to take over and run the union, as Daisy sees it, like a top-down cult. (Here I should say that I too am a product of the Yale graduate student union, and while I don’t know the two unnamed HERE arrivals involved, it was easy for me to figure out who they are, and I’m only one degree of separation removed from them. I certainly recognize the organizing practices Pitkin narrates.) They try to manipulate Daisy and Alma with barrages of invasive questions, particularly upsetting both when they probe into Alma’s marriage, a subject Daisy had silently learned to avoid. “The organizer asked you why you put up with Julio’s lack of enthusiasm for the union when you are such a fighter at work, why you would let someone hold you down, why don’t you stand up to him. I didn’t know how to answer them, you said, your voice small, forlorn, because it is true.” But true or not, metamorphosis doesn’t happen on command, and trying to force it this way makes Alma feel weak and tiny. Something feels off, too, when Daisy and Alma travel to the merger convention, where the newly amalgamated UNITE HERE turns Alma into a symbol of laundry workers’ heroism in a slick, polished appearance. Alma is proud, but in this part of the narrative the union seems like a foreign thing, choreographed and inorganic.
Even as the enlarged clout of the consolidated union begins to deliver gains for Alma and Daisy on the ground in Arizona, there is a growing, hollow pit in their organizing. At the national level, UNITE HERE negotiates a card check agreement for Alma’s workplace: management will have to recognize a simple majority on membership cards. But Alma and Daisy have to claw their way there. One of the best scenes in the book occurs when Daisy goes to confront Luz, the worker who lied about her in court and is one of La Sandra’s cronies (Las Viejas, as other workers call them). Alma and Daisy arrive at her home as she is unpacking groceries from the car. “This was a lucky break we would remind each other of often in the months that followed,” Pitkin writes, “because there is no chance she or any of the other Viejas would have opened their doors for us, though that had not stopped us from knocking.” Alma waits in the car, explaining with cruel perceptiveness that Luz likes to show off her English and will not respond well to her Spanish-speaking coworker. So Daisy approaches Luz on her own with her hands up—“as if in surrender”—and, through Luz’s yelling, says that the union is going to win because of the card check (not necessarily true) and needs Luz’s input on the contract: she’s a leader (true enough). Luz pauses, so Daisy asks her about her garden, her family, and, now that she’s softened up, again what she would want in the contract. Luz finally signs the union card against the car window and soon gets two other Viejas to sign, telling one to “keep her ugly mouth shut” and not let anyone know. After the union reaches a majority and La Sandra sees the list, she calls Las Viejas into her office, where they all say their signatures are faked. But it’s too late—the company has accepted that the union will win. The victory doesn’t come from Alma and Daisy’s organizing, although it was necessary; it comes from UNITE HERE’s leverage over the employer. Most of the contract language had been decided in advance, above the workers’ heads.
If you’ve followed the recent history of the labor movement, you know what comes next. The UNITE people think the HERE people are manipulative elitist monsters who don’t care enough about increasing density. The HERE people think UNITE is incompetent and will increase density at any cost, including selling out workers. The merger falls apart within a few years, and in 2009 the union fissures in a spasm of shocking fratricidal struggle, which escalates quickly from shouting matches to stolen files, lawsuits, changed locks, and office sieges.
Most of the UNITE half becomes Workers United, a satellite of SEIU. Alma and Daisy find themselves on different sides, and Daisy sets about tearing down what they had built together. “In the office of the local you had fought to build, I held daily staff meetings with a team of twenty people who had come to work for the union to help nonunion workers form unions, and I directed them to do appalling things,” writes Pitkin.
We bullied our way into contract negotiations among airport food-service workers. We sabotaged a hotel organizing campaign. We attempted to sabotage a second hotel organizing campaign. We planned to sabotage a third hotel organizing campaign. Most of the organizers did not want to do these things, but they did them fervently, in the belief that breaking the union apart was the only way to save it. They believed it because I told them: Breaking the union apart is the only way to save it.
Running on unrefined rage, Daisy crashes out physically. While on bed rest, she gets a call from a nice lady at the union operations department explaining how to return her cell phone and computer. “She said that she’d been told I wasn’t coming back to work. Do I have that right? she asked. And I knew that she did.” It’s easy to see how this could be another betrayal—fired without the courtesy of anyone telling her—but it comes as a relief.
What is the place of rage in organizing? Pitkin ponders the question throughout the book, from an inspiring early scene of a wildcat strike after a dryer fire to the mothlike self-immolation of the final section. “When I worked for UNITE and then UNITE HERE and then Workers United/SEIU,” she writes, “I was taught—and so I believed—that anger is the primary emotion that drives people to fight, the only emotion strong enough to overcome fear. And anger is powerful, it’s true, but care for one another is, too. And care for one another, unlike anger (or unlike anger for me) is continually renewable.” While Pitkin is right, she does not add that care is often harder to access: it’s locked away in the inner storehouses, rationed and doled out only with wariness. Negotiating with the unequal power structures that give shape to everyday life means selecting things and people not to care about—including, always, parts of ourselves. This too is something organizers must wrestle with, and that often leads to their worst mistakes: pressing workers to transform themselves in ways they are not prepared or able to do. Some might say it’s liberating to drive a worker into confronting the compromises they’ve made to get through life, to negotiate their moment in history, and in theory it might be—no doubt this is what the HERE organizers thought when they brought up Alma’s marriage. Sometimes such a confrontation unlocks the power of an organizer. In practice it’s often more complicated.
On the Line concludes with the insistence that the moment is becoming ripe again for all of us. “Time to ‘shed that tight, dry skin, or die,’” Pitkin writes, quoting Nabokov on caterpillars. Since the book has gone to press, Workers United, born from the bloody split, has achieved what may be the most important private-sector organizing breakthrough in decades in its Starbucks campaign—a campaign that Pitkin now leads as organizing director. Across the country, Starbucks workers are saying that they are organizing because of their care for one another in a moment when they have been abandoned by their employer.
The forcefield of solidarity that pulses among us, in Pitkin’s metaphor, grew thin for a while, and now that it’s getting thicker again, and fast, the battered, damaged unions we have are hardly in any shape to channel it. This is a cause for concern, even fear. But reading On the Line, one can’t help but be excited about what might happen when all that passion—care and anger put together—hatches into something new. As Eugene Debs once put it,
Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, traduced by the press, frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders, but, notwithstanding all this, and all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known.
On the Line vibrates with that vital and potential power, and all the more so for the stumbles, falls, and bruises Alma and Daisy took together. It’s one for the ages.
Gabriel Winant is assistant professor of history at the University of Chicago. His book, The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America, came out in 2021.