On today’s episode I have the pleasure to speak with author Daisy Pitken about her new book titled, On the Line - A story of class, solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union.
In her book, Daisy recounts the story of a grueling 5 yearlong bottom-up campaign she was involved in to help unionize industrial laundry workers in Phoenix, Arizona.
This book is both riveting and intimate and paints a humanizing portrait of the American labor movement.
We begin our conversation by learning about the hazardous jobsite conditions that drove these primarily Latino workers to seek union representation in the first place, and how the multinational corporate owned cleaning firms deployed strong arm, union busting tactics in an attempt to squash their organizing efforts.
Next, we’ll look into the role professional union organizers play in guiding those who seek representation and analyze the differences in what’s at stake for both.
Later Daisy will elaborate on her relationship with rank-and-file activist Alma Gomez Garcia who she met on the campaign, and why she feels Alma’s unshakable courage and resolve makes her one of the gutsiest fighters she’s ever known.
And we’ll end our conversation by unpacking the underlying personal attributes that are needed to survive a years long campaign and how true transformation and growth can be achieved while doing so.
This is one of my favorite interviews to date and I hope you can help share Daisy’s message of inspiration with those who you think may benefit from it.
The Show Notes
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Welcome to Grit Nation. I'm Joe Cadwell, the writer, producer and host of the show, and on today's episode, I have the pleasure to speak with author Daisy Pitken, about her new book titled On the Line, a Story of Class, Solidarity and Two Women's Epic Fight to Build a Union. In her book, Daisy recounts the story of a grueling five year long bottom up campaign she was involved in to help unionize industrial laundry workers in Phoenix, Arizona. This book is both riveting and intimate and paints a humanizing portrait of the American labor movement. We'll begin our conversation by learning about the hazardous jobsite conditions that drove these primarily Latino workers to seek union representation in the first place, and how the multinational corporate owned cleaning firms deployed strong arm union busting tactics in an attempt to squash their organizing efforts. Next, we'll look into the role professional union organizers play in guiding those who seek representation and analyze the differences and what's at stake for both. Later Daisy will elaborate on her relationship with rank and file activist Alma Gomez Garcia, who she met on the campaign and why she feels almost unshakable courage and resolve occur one of the gutsiest fighters she's ever known. And wonder conversation by unpacking the underlying personal attributes that are needed to survive a years long campaign, and how true transformation and growth can be achieved while doing so. This is one of my favorite interviews the date and I hope you can help share Daisy's message of inspiration with those who you think may benefit from it. Learn more about DAISY ficken. And on the line, be sure to check out the show notes for this episode, or visit the grid nation podcast website at www red nation podcast.com. And now on to the show. Daisy Pitken Welcome to Grit Nation.Daisy Pitken:
Hi. Thanks for having me on.Joe Cadwell:
Yeah, thank you, Daisy, thank you so much for taking your time to be on the show today to talk to us about a book that you have recently written, called on the line a story of class solidarity and to women's epic fight to build a union. And Daisy fantastic book written unlike so many other union centric books that can be very dry and and, you know, not easy to read your book reads. So well. It's great. What what got you to write this book,Daisy Pitken:
You know, I think we see a lot of headlines, especially today about labor organizing workers are really, you know, there's a lot of momentum, in sector after sector in all regions of the country. There's a kind of a groundswell of organizing happening right now. And I think that there are a lot of people who don't know what goes on behind those headlines, actually what the work of building a union looks like, how hard it is, and how important it is that we organize and win, maybe now more than ever. So I wanted to write a book that would that might find its way to readers who wouldn't otherwise pick up a book about labor, and learn some of the context behind the headlines and know a little bit about what what it means to form a union why so many workers are doing it right now, why it's so hard to do and why we can't stop trying.Joe Cadwell:
And why do you think right now more than ever, I mean, in generations, we haven't had the sort of this up swelling of the union movement and union being in the headlines day in and day out. Why do you think that is? Daisy?Daisy Pitken:
I think there are a lot of factors. Part of it is that workers, especially young workers, have just had enough. And I think that pattern started even before the pandemic workers were seeing, you know, growing wealth disparity in this country, corporations just making more and more getting more of a share of the wealth that's created. And workers really not seeing that in their paychecks in their pocket books, in the pandemic, I think, brought some of the forces at work into sharper focus. You know, we have a shop steward who works at an industrial laundry here in Pittsburgh at a union shop. And I was visiting with him a few weeks ago. And you know, I was in the lunchroom with him. And he was pointing to the banner that's hanging on the lunchroom wall that still says you are essential pandemic heroes. And he pointed at it and he said, You know what that banner really says to us, it says, yeah, there's a global pandemic, but get your butt to work anyway. Which, you know, I think a lot of workers saw, you know, especially at Union shops, a little bump in their paychecks in the early days of the pandemic, they were getting some kind of hazard pay. And that money at a certain point just disappeared. And workers know that companies were able to pay that to them and they didn't go bankrupt, that money disappeared. And now companies are making more money than ever, in fact, record breaking profits for many, many companies during the pandemic, and workers have just they've had enough. You know, and a lot of the younger workers that I'm working with these days are calling themselves generation you generation union, I feel like there's a real urgency around revitalizing the labor movement in this country, because people realize that that dynamic that more and more wealth is going to the very wealthiest people, that's not going to change until working people stand up for themselves.Joe Cadwell:
Absolutely generation you I love that. It stands for both Union and the and the urgency. And you say the labor movement, you know, a revitalization of that. And we'll probably dip into a little bit of union history as we get on with our conversation. But it is something that is deeply rooted in our nation and around the world. When workers finally have enough they have to collectively get themselves together and bargain for better living conditions. Not always just money, but about, you know, the distribution of time and and respect and safety on the job are so many reasons why folks come to unions in the first place. And so that brings us to on the line and you find yourself in Phoenix, Arizona, on a campaign that lasted if I remember correctly, five years.Daisy Pitken:
Yeah, it took us five years to organize the majority of the industrial laundries in that city. You know, in your right that, especially in the story that I tell in the book, it's about organizing industrial laundries, one of the major issues that workers were trying to resolve through unionization and collective bargaining was health and safety. I mean, wages also, of course, and benefits and better hours. But health and safety is really the the sort of category of issues that galvanize the movement that happened there among laundry workers. I think, industrial laundry work is work that can be invisible, people don't tend to know about it. But on the outskirts of every city, in this country, and larger communities, there are factories, where hundreds of workers work to launder the linens that come to them from their clients who are restaurants and hotels, and hospitals. So every time you go to a hotel, or to a restaurant that might have cloth napkins, or into a hospital, and you're laying on a hospital, bed, hospital sheets, and pillowcases, and gowns, all of those linens go to these big industrial spaces where workers who are working on, you know, heavy machinery are sorting them, and washing them and drying them, ironing them in these massive industrial irons, folding them and packing them up to go back to the restaurants and hotels and hospitals. And I think people don't think about that very often, when you go to a hotel or to a hospital, that people on the other end of this sort of cycle of production are going to be touching that with their hands. You know, there are human beings on the other side of that garment, that piece of linen. And they're working in dangerous conditions. And more often than not, that was the issue that got workers involved in campaigns to unionize. They wanted personal protective equipment. You know, they wanted to make sure that safety guards were in place on machines where they should be. They wanted to make sure that they were able to lock down machines if they got jammed and not have so much production pressure in the plant that they were trying to clear jams without working safely to do it. Right.Joe Cadwell:
Wow. And this, how long ago was this Daisy when this campaignDaisy Pitken:
this campaign, so I was an organizer, a young organizer for unite, which was you know, an offshoot of the International ladies garment workers union. And they took on this project in Phoenix in the early 2000s. So it was you know, 2003 to about 2008. We were organizing industrial laundries across Phoenix and then it spread to other cities in Arizona as well Tucson, Lake Havasu City, Flagstaff, but it was yeah, the kind of early mid 2000s.Joe Cadwell:
And that was at a time where union market share in in Arizona, I imagine but especially in Phoenix was probably at a zero. You walked into something that had no union presence at all. And that must have been incredibly difficult to get this bottom up campaign, I assume. StartedDaisy Pitken:
Yeah, I think you're right there was there was not a very large organizing culture. In Arizona Phoenix at the time was a deep red city in a deep red right to work state Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his posse or they're in Maricopa County, there was a law in place that allowed them to literally, uh, you know, roam the streets and target people who they thought might be undocumented, ask them for papers and arrest them. It was a it was a hostile time for any kind of resistance movements or organizing for justice and certainly the labor movement. There were some other unions, they're organizing at the time and they happen to be building trades unions, the iron workers, the roofers, the painters, they were all engaged in a in a project to try to figure out if they could start organizing residential building trades workers who are also immigrant workers. So the laundry workers who are mostly immigrants, mostly women, we ended up having trainings, sometimes in solidarity with these other building trades unions who were organizing immigrant workers. And we would run the trainings in Spanish, you know, like three day intensive organizing trainings. And then they were sort of our our network of solidarity in Phoenix. We showed up at their rallies, they showed up at our rallies, we showed up at their picket lines, they came to ours for years, that was kind of the real network that we had in Phoenix for for acting in solidarity with other unions.Joe Cadwell:
And it just seems sort of a ironic that the people that are doing this work are the same people that the immigrant workers are the ones that are being rounded up and asked to to leave, you know, their jobs, leave that state leave the country, but yet, who was going to replace them in these in these factories, especially as unsafe as you're making it sound? I'm sure they weren't. You said they were. They were mostly organizing for safer working conditions, but I'm sure they weren't being too largely compensated for their efforts. And those No, theyDaisy Pitken:
weren't. And many of them work for large, multi national corporations. I mean, big wea lthy corporations run many, many laundry facilities across the country. We're talking about Sodexo Aramark, Compass, the big, you know, multi service corporations. They also run industrial laundries. So it's not as if workers were working like Mom and Pop laundries across Phoenix are working for big companies, and they were making minimum wage to start and then sometimes would get 10 cent raises or five cent raises as annual adjustments, which were not cost of living adjustments, just tiny raises that we're not even allowing them to keep up. Right. So they were certainly organizing for better pay as well. But the issue that I heard more often than not in house visits, and then organizing committee meetings was, we need better gloves. You know, we need production pressure to be lower so that we can work safer, that kind of thing. And theJoe Cadwell:
people that were asking for this, as you said there were a lot of imagine Hispanic workers, one of them in particular you began a friendship with a Alma Gomez Garcia and what can you tell us about Alma and what made her stand out from from everyone else that you you worked with and got honorable mention.Daisy Pitken:
Alma, Alma is the the gutsiest worker leader I have ever met. Still today, and I've been an organizer for a long time kind of on and off. The she has a kind of natural charisma about her that, you know, her coworkers really had a lot of respect for her. And there's also something about Alma that just does not allow her to back down no matter what, no matter what the company threw at them, the sort of dirty tricks they played, the vicious anti union campaign, they ran every step of the way. It just made all of them more committed to unionization, more committed to fighting for what was right in that in that factory. And I think part of the reason I write the book, you know, the main narrative thread of the book is written as a second person addressed to her, because we had such a strong, but also complicated relationship. I think the relationship between staff organizers and workers is is is something that's should be examined. It's always sort of worth examination. You know, she was taking on a lot of risk to organize an AI, on the other hand, was paid to help lead the organizing I had, there was no risk for me. And she there was a lot of risk for her. And I think that dynamic is really interesting and worth exploring. But Alma at one point during the organizing campaign there said, you know, she asked a question at a training and the question was Why is it that some people are willing to fight, have a will to fight, and other people don't. And she was asking this at a point in the campaign at her factory where the company she worked for, had really started hitting back hard. And they're anti union campaign was vicious, and, and non stop, and it really eroded support for the Union, even though a strong majority of workers had signed union cards at the beginning of the campaign, many of the supporters became frightened by this campaign and wouldn't talk to us wouldn't answer their doors when we came to knock. She was frustrated. And you know, every time the company did something to try to break the union, it just made Alma more angry, she just wanted to fight harder. And it was frustrating for her and hard for her to see some of her co workers fall down in their fear, which is how she said it in Spanish. I mean, that's my English translation of what she said in Spanish. And, and she asked that question, and I feel like it's such an interesting question to pose, not just, you know, in the context of that training, or the context of that campaign, but more broadly, for the labor movement as a whole, to think about what it is that that encourages people to take that first step, to work on an organizing campaign, that first step where they say, you know, what, I deserve more. And I'm going to work with my co workers so that we can speak loudly with one voice and make sure that we're getting what we deserve. Right? What is it that causes people to take that first step? And then how do they sustain it over the course of what turns out to be a long timeline for unionization under current labor law in this country?Joe Cadwell:
And you're correct, I mean, five years, that's an incredibly long time to stay focused. And again, when you have a company that's aggressively trying to break the back of this union organizing movement, it can be incredibly frustrating. So let's, let's step back a bit, just what type of techniques was this company using to sort of squash this, this unionism that was beginning there in Phoenix,Daisy Pitken:
they used the whole playbook of anti union techniques. So as a young organizer, I learned that there's sort of a, you know, a triad of tactics that companies use, and we call that good boss, bad boss, sad boss. And you can imagine, for most titles, that good boss is sort of a whole slew of things that they do, to try to show workers that things will get better at the company without a union, you don't need to organize a union, because we'll give you a raise. And, oh, you really need drinking water while you work in 125 degree factory, no problem will bring drinking water will put ice in it now, you know, like,Joe Cadwell:
Why didn't you say something before? Yeah, exactly. And that'sDaisy Pitken:
actually where sad boss comes in. And the company did that to sad bosses, like, you know, the plant manager who's pretty well liked by a lot of the folks who work there, comes into the anti union meetings and gets teary eyed a little bit and says, you know, I always considered us a family. And I'm so personally hurt by the fact that you didn't bring these concerns to me first, why would you go to the union, you know, and they did a lot of that as well. So they did good boss, they did sad boss. And they also did bad boss. So they fired OMA during the organizing campaign, and some of her co workers, they wrote up unnecessarily and unfairly, a bunch of other union activists in the plant. They threatened to close the plant. They threatened that workers were going to have, you know, lower pay than they had before, or fewer benefits than they had before or less work. And they were going to have to lay people off. I mean, all kinds of threats, surveillance of union meetings,Joe Cadwell:
captive audience meetings, I imagine he admittedDaisy Pitken:
in court to holding over 200, captive audience meetings in two weeks in a two week period.Joe Cadwell:
And can you explain again, for some of the listeners who may not know that the premise behind a captive audience meeting?Daisy Pitken:
Yeah, a captive audience meeting? I think it's a really good time to talk about this, too, because the General Counsel of the NLRB just, you know, issued a memo trying to revert to an earlier doctrine of labor law in which captive audience meetings were not legal. Right now. They are legal, but they should not be. And she said, You know, it's an anomaly and labor law that we would allow companies to speak so strongly against unions to workers without giving unions also the chance to speak. But anyway, a captive audience meeting is pulling workers who are on the clock either in big groups or small groups, or even just one worker at a time, into a meeting with management, requiring them to be there so that the company can campaign against the union. And in the captive audience meetings and almost factory, they pulled small groups of workers, usually two or three at a time, into a little conference room that the workers never went into, right, they worked on the factory floor, they never went into this part of the building, they were going into this conference room and screening a video called little card big trouble, where there is some video of like an anonymous group of workers sitting around a conference room table in the dark talking about how much trouble they've gotten themselves into by signing this union card. And then, you know, the HR manager would campaign against the union until workers they don't know they could lose benefits. Now, they don't know the factory could close down. They don't know what will happen. And then the plant manager, this guy who was pretty well liked would walk in and almost you know, like clockwork, get teared up, over and over, get teared up and say we're a family and why didn't you come to me? So, you know, this playbook of anti union tactics is pretty standard. It's I've seen it time and time again, industry after industry, there's a multi million dollar business of union avoidance in this country, right. So employers hire these highly paid attorneys who help companies walk through the wide open loopholes of US labor law, to try to break the backs of unions.Joe Cadwell:
Now, they'll spend hundreds of millions of dollars to break a union to give people safer working conditions or a bump in pay to keep up with costs. It's incredible, it'sDaisy Pitken:
really incredible, because they know that unionization can actually change the balance of power inside a workplace. And they're used to having all the power. And so they'd rather spend millions of dollars on Union avoidance, which is a phrase that it's hard for me to even say because it's just union busting, right? They spent millions of dollars on Union avoidance, it just so workers won't have the chance to come to the bargaining table to ask for more. Just to to, you know, make sure that workers don't have the opportunity to even ask for more. It's incredible.Joe Cadwell:
This episode of grit nation is proudly supported by the carpenters, local 271, based in Eugene, Oregon, thanks to their generosity, the hard working men and women of the local 271 can now sport and official, I've got grit high visibility t shirt, this us made garment is produced by image point of Waterloo, Iowa, and features the American flag and the newly designed grit nation logo, I have to say it looks really sharp, I'm pleased as punch to have their support. If your local business or organization is interested in collaborating with grit nation, the building trades podcast, I'd be happy to hear from you. Grit nation is proud to support those who support the blue collar trades people of America and Canada. And now back to the show. So on the other side, I look at this almost like a three legged stool, you know, when when trying to work with an organizing campaign, because you have the folks that you're organizing, I guess against the company for better working conditions or more money, whatever it is, you have the people that are, you know, the ones who are are benefiting from these collective bargaining agreements, the workers and then you have the the union presidents as yourself and there's kind of a, you know, a fine line there Daisy as a union organizer, that you have to kind of keep in order to guide these people to make decisions that are going to be in their best interest without getting too involved. And how do you work that that division, you stay involved with them, you give them advice, but ultimately, they have to have their buy in in order for this to be sustainable and long lasting? So how do you play that?Daisy Pitken:
I think that's a real central question in my book, because I don't think that we always did it well. And I think that it is something that should be talked about a lot more than it is on union organizing campaigns, the role of the staff organizer, and how it you know, I think there's a lot of pressure on organizers to win campaigns. And you know, it's not a bad kind of pressure. We know what can happen if we lose, if we lose a campaign, it takes decades sometimes before that worksite can get up and start organizing again, right. And often, especially in in an industry like industrial laundries, we're talking about real health and safety issues, dire health and safety issues that can be resolved through unionization. And if we lose, it's going to be decades of dangerous work happening in that in that factory. So there's a real pressure on union organizers to win And, and so we tend to want to guide in a heavy handed way on a campaign, because we have a lot of experience. And we've been trained highly by the unions that we work for. And we often have a lot of experience, we know what can go wrong on a campaign. And we don't want to see things go wrong. But I think we need to examine all the time, how it is that we can democratize the skill and the experience and the expertise that we have to get it sort of out of our brains and hands and into the brains and hands of the workers who are organizing, if we're if we're going to see democratic unions built at the end of the day, because workers have to be able to lead their own campaign so that afterwards, they're going to be able to lead their own union. Right. I think that question of internal democracy, not only after workers become rank and file members of the Union, but during the course of a campaign is really critical. And I think we're seeing we're seeing a moment that's happening in tandem with this groundswell we were talking about earlier, all this new organizing that's happening all across the country, we're seeing that question considered at a higher level, or in a deeper way than I've ever seen it before. And I think it's really encouraging this question of who's running the campaign? Who's making the decisions? Whose union is it going to be at the end of the day is something a lot of people are thinking about and talking about?Joe Cadwell:
Yeah, and I think that's it's really important to point out because so many people think, Oh, the unions run by them, our staff, our elected representatives, that paid union business agents, but the reality is the union is the members Union, we are the union. And people have to remember that without our support, you know, in my, our particular instance, the Northwest carpenters union here, part of the UBC, we have 28,000 members, and we have roughly 70 staff, I mean, there's no way 70 People can, can represent the 28,000 members in 1.1 million square miles that we occupy without the buy in of the people that nor shouldDaisy Pitken:
they right, and then there should have enough agency and involvement to be running the union as much as they can themselves. Of course, someone needs to like answer the phones and make the copies and do the bookkeeping and all that stuff. There have to be staff. But I think that having a very staff heavy, paid organizer, heavy union does a disservice to the members in terms of building the kind of voice at work, which is an organization based on democracy. You know, it's it's very difficult to build a truly democratic organization, if it's sort of top heavy. And connecting that back to the union busting conversation we were just having a moment ago. You know, one of the main tactics that employers use and that we're seeing now on like the Amazon campaign, the Starbucks campaign, is this third partying of the Union, right? Companies love to say, we don't need these outsiders coming in and getting between us and our workers. And on these campaigns that are really being driven on the ground by workers organizing themselves and each other like the Starbucks campaign, like what just happened in Staten Island, that third party message just doesn't work. It falls flat every time because the workers are saying, What are you talking about this third, there is no third party, we are the union. I think it's really power.Joe Cadwell:
Exactly right. And so the third leg of the stool then are people that fill in the framework that the union organizers provide people like Alma, who have that, that drive that fire to, to inspire to be part of the rank and file movement to to get other people to buy in. And I know that again, you know, you and all my work very close together. Having read the book , having listened to a few other podcast, las polillas, the moths play a big part in your book, and how you likened yourselves to, to the moths that were endemic in this particular part period of time in Arizona. What can you tell us about those last couple years?Unknown:
So, you know, almost factory was a 24 hour a day operation seven days a week. So a lot of our organizing happened in the middle of the night doing running shift meetings or department meetings in the parking lot in front of her factory. And as the campaign kicked off, there is this sort of unusually large hatching emerging I have moths in Phoenix. So there we are standing under floodlights in the parking lot of her factory. And there are moths just sort of swarming the lights of her head, kind of you can imagine maybe the sound of their bodies just kind of bashing in to the light. And that sound became this kind of ambient noise that every time in the years after the campaign, I thought about the campaign, that sound just came into my mind. And at one point on the campaign, Alma and I started calling ourselves las polillas, which is Spanish for the moths. And it started out as just a joke, because I was reading a book back in my hotel room at night by Julio Alvarez called in the time of the butterflies, which is a really great book. And it's about the let you know, the Neato ball sisters in the Dominican Republic, who organized clandestinely to resist the Trujillo dictatorship in that country. And they called themselves last muddy process, which is the butterflies. So all of that I joke that we were kind of they're the ugly cousins of these beautiful resistance sisters. And that we were driving around kind of in the dust of Phoenix, sort of bashing our heads against the porch light in the very difficult organizing that we were doing at the time. So the book does, there's a whole thread in the book that's kind of inter woven into the story about the campaign and Phoenix, that's about moths. And I explore their biology, their very weird intersections with early moments of the labor movement, both in this country, but also in Europe, in the earliest days of industrialization, and I explore their role in mythology and a few other things. And I think the moths do two things really in the book. And one of them is they gave me space as a narrator to think about some of the things that you don't get to think about when you're caught up in the frenetic pace of organizing on a campaign to step back, really and reflect on what is this role of a paid staff organizer? What should it be? Well, you know, what is the substance of the relationships between organizers and workers and workers and each other and all of that thinking that I wanted to do in the book that I couldn't really do in the narrative about the campaign because I wanted that, to keep the pace of what it really felt like to be on it, which is kind of like being strapped to the front of a freight train and just driven down the tracks like you don't have time to think really much about anything, you're just going all the time. So the moss give that space in the book.Joe Cadwell:
It'll it allows you to open up the narrative of transformation, metamorphosis, and in in the workers understanding of what is at stake and how they grow and strengthen their themselves to to better their lives and the lives of their families. Yes, is what I took.Daisy Pitken:
That's right. That's the second part of it, I think, really is it helped me answer that question that Alma asked all those years ago, what drives some people to fight? And I think the answer is sort of a transformation or a metamorphosis that happens when people do fight. So people take that first step, to be involved in an organizing campaign or just to stand up for themselves in any context. I think it changes them. And it grows their capacity to do more of that. And watching that, on organizing campaigns is one of my absolute favorite things about being an organizer, watching people grow their own capacity, to have agency in the world, and to stand up for themselves and to build relationships with their co workers and community members even outside of work sometimes, that are the substance of solidarity that will change the fabric of the workplace and the communities in which they live.Joe Cadwell:
And I agree sometimes these traits come more naturally to certain people and other people need a little more of a kick in the pants to get that going or something tragic. Now I've I've full disclosure, listen to you on a few other podcasts. I know you kind of are very articulate and very well written. You're a storyteller by nature, you use stories in order to motivate people. And one of the stories that I've noticed, that I've come across a few times is your relationship with the the 146 women that died during the triangle, Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. And one of those kick in the pants that really was was sort of the catalyst to get a lot of reforms made. And for those who don't know, Daisy, would you mind just a brief narrative of what shook what went down at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and how you would use that sort of storytelling to inspire people to step up and take that agency for them.Daisy Pitken:
So, you know, there are two sort of historical events that I talked about in the book. And one of them is the uprising of the 20,000. And the others, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. And they're kind of connected. But I tell them in the book, because they were really foundational to the union that I worked for unite, which was an offshoot of the International ladies garment workers union, which really came into being in the year 1900, when the first local was built, and then exploded in terms of membership, around 1909.Joe Cadwell:
And this is New York City, Manhattan, NewUnknown:
York City, and then it spread all across the country, but it started in New York City. And in 1909, there was an uprising of garment workers at about 500 small shops across Manhattan, workers went on strike. And they went on strike after. The story that I used to tell as a young orga nizer is that this young woman, named Clara Lemlich, who was a shirtwaist maker shirt wastes were the blouses that were kind of in fashion at the time, and were being made and many, many garment factories across New York City. And she got hoisted up on a stage and called for a general strike. And the next day, 20,000 people followed her into the street. That's a story that I told hundreds of times as a young organizer, almost ritualistically.Joe Cadwell:
It's inspiring, in normal race style of inspiring sort of a cinematic moment that is made for you know, for the big screen.Daisy Pitken:
I'm interested in that story. Because the more I told that the less inspiring I felt like it was like, if I'm standing in front of a group of workers in Phoenix, and I tell them, you know, 100 years ago, there was this young immigrant woman who got hoisted up on a stage and sort of, like out of dumb luck, and a little bit of courage sparked a strike. I don't know what that's supposed to inspire. I don't think that workers see themselves in that story and think, Oh, I could start a strike of 20,000 people, I think they look at it as this act of bravery that's so crazy, so irrevocable, that it's not actually inspiring. And instead, what really happened is that Claire lemon, like was a worker organizer, not unlike Alma, who was really inspiring and who did the very hard work of organizing for years before that moment happened, right. For years, she built strike committees, among workers at shops all across the city. And on the day that she called for a general strike. Everyone there knew who she was. They knew what she was going to say. And they already knew they were going to strike. And that's not the way that we told the story. We told the story in that sort of more cinematic way. And I think it does a disservice to the labor movement, to tell stories in that kind of way and decontextualize it from the hard work of organizing that happens behind the scenes. So that's 1909. We have the shirtwaist strike. And it was largely successful. Most garment factories across this, the city acquiesced to the strikers demands, there were some health and safety things that they got solved, like cleaning up lint, so there wouldn't be fires. There were some wages, there were some hours. So most of their demands, were complied with by most factories across the city, hundreds of them. One of the biggest factories in New York was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. And that company would not come to the table refused, and the strike ended without their compliance. And just months later, a fire started there that killed 146 people. It's still one of the most vicious atrocities in the history of, you know, industrial America.Joe Cadwell:
My understanding is, except for a 911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is one of the largest or if at that time, the largest industrial workplace disaster in American history.Daisy Pitken:
And I tell the story of it in the book because, you know, I think when I used to tell that story as a young organizer, what the story is meant to do is to talk about how awful how awful that situation was, and that you know, this is that it helped to form health and save Do laws, you know, there was a lot of mourning and marching and organizing that happened out of outrage after the fire. And workers were able to legislate some health and safety laws, and child safety laws and child labor laws that benefitted people all across the country. So in some ways, it's a story about how the anger that people felt after that fire helped to change, things helped to create change, right. But I tell the story in the book in really great detail, because there's something about me, I've told that story, probably 500 times, I don't know how many really, but many, many times I just told it here in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago to a new group of workers who are organizing, because it's so foundational to the history of our union, so important to it. And I am not able to tell that story without getting emotional about it. Like you can probably hear it in my voice right now. It's really, it's hard for me to tell that story because it was such a gruesome atrocity.Joe Cadwell:
totally preventable as well, things like the doors being locked so that these young immigrant women who wouldn't contemplate stealing thread, the doors opened inwards, so that when it came time to exit the rooms, they were being blocked, and people were actually being crushed that the the fire escapes were, were not suitable to contain the amount of people and collapsed under their weight, and that these poor immigrant women had too many of them either had to choose between burning to death and jumping to their death. And it was a completely avoidable and again, there's so many parallels Daisy, to what we saw in 1911, to what you're talking about in the early 2000s. And I imagine what happens in many parts of the world, including probably the US today, in when corporate greed gets in the way of basic human rights and dignity. Absolutely.Daisy Pitken:
Yep. Yeah, that's exactly right. And, you know, the employers went, went unpunished. They locked the doors, and people died. And they went unpunished. And I think that's another echo to today. I mean, we're seeing, you know, all of the corporate greed goes unchecked. And unpunished even though it has real consequences for real people who are working, you know, just trying to go to work and earn a paycheck and, and being harmed by their, by their jobs.Joe Cadwell:
Unfortunately, we do have some government oversight in the form of OSHA, but in regards to the National Labor Relations Board, it seems like almost a toothless organization and enforcing any type of bottom up organizing campaigns and with these unscrupulous companies, corporations, cut corners, use heavy handed techniques, there's very little repercussion for them, isn't that correct?Daisy Pitken:
That's absolutely true. labor law in this country is broken. And it sort of desperately needs to be fixed. And it's not going to be fixed. I don't think until people really start standing up and taking action together. That's how labor law came to be in this country in the first place. It was a way for employers to legislate labor peace, because there were so many massive strikes happening across the country. It brought employers to the table and sort of begging for peace and for a wave that for you, for workers to be able to form unions without going on strike. And here we are, you know, nearly 100 years later. And labor law has been so broken, that there really are no repercussions for companies who break the law to work companies can fire workers threaten workers, bribe workers, surveil workers, and really the the best remedy that the Labor Board has. The one that they issue more often than not, is for the company to have to put up a letter in the workplace where they violated the law saying we're sorry, and we'll try not to do it again. So if you're, you know, a company facing unionization, and as we were saying before, sort of a shifting of the balance of power inside the worksite. And you really want to maintain the control that you have and not allow workers to come to the table to ask for improvements. And you know, that the only repercussion for breaking the law, trying to do everything you can to break that union is having to put up a letter saying we broke the law. It's almost, you know, begging to be broken, but why would you not? If you are a court ration who didn't want to have a union. And that's what we're that's what we're seeing time after time.Joe Cadwell:
So it's up to the workers up to the people to make the stand, draw the line in the sand to organize and collectively control their futures. So basically books like yours definitely help out with with getting this message across what do you hope people that read your book come away with,Unknown:
I hope people will come away with the understanding that the labor movement is absolutely crucial, and will be instrumental to any sort of, you know, fight for change or movement for change in this country that working people have got to come together and that the time is right now. And there's a lot of momentum. If you're thinking about organizing, now is the time if you're already a union member, and you have family members who work at non union places, talk to them about organizing right now. This is the time to hope people come away with that and also a sort of deeper understanding about the hard work that it takes to organize that it's not easy. Companies are going to fight and we have to be strong and act in solidarity with each other in order to win that this is the timeJoe Cadwell:
absolutely well Daisy Pitken this has been a fantastic conversation where can listeners go to find out more about you and your work?Unknown:
I have a little websites daisypitkin.net that you can buy the book on the line at any kind of independent bookstore that you might have locally or on bookshop.org or anywhere youJoe Cadwell:
buy books thank you again for taking your time to be on the show. It's been a real thanksDaisy Pitken:
for having me on.Joe Cadwell:
I guess day has been Daisy Pitken author of On the Line, which is now available wherever you buy books. For more information to help you dive deeper into the subject. Be sure to check out the show notes for this episode, visit the Grit Nation website at www.gritnationpodcast.com. As always, thank you for listening and until next time, this is Joe Cadwell reminding you to work safe, work smart and stay union strong