Dirty Laundry

On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women's Epic Fight to Build a Union by daisy pitkin. Chapel hill, nc: algonquin books.

The cover of On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women's Epic Fight to Build a Union

IN 2004, DAISY PITKIN, a young staff organizer for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE), is recounting the union’s history to a group of ironworkers, roofers, painters, and laundry workers assembled for organizing training. She begins with the founding of UNITE’s predecessor, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, in 1900, and continues with the strike by New York City garment workers, nine years later, that came to be known as the Uprising of the 20,000. She tells her audience how Clara Lemlich, a twenty-three-old garment worker, called for the strike during a meeting at Cooper Union, and how, after making the motion from the floor, Lemlich stepped up to the podium and recited a Yiddish oath, “If I turn traitor to the cause I now pledge, may my hand wither from the arm I now raise.” Pitkin goes on to describe the victories won by the strike: how after thirteen weeks nearly every garment company acquiesced to the union’s demands, agreeing to raises, capping working hours, and instituting basic safety practices, including fire regulations. But, she emphasizes, a few holdouts remained—including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

When Pitkin reaches the story of the fire that engulfed the factory sixteen months after the strike, killing 146 garment workers who had been locked inside the factory by its owners, she chokes up. “My voice broke, and I had to stop talking for a few moments and stand there, embarrassed, in the front of the room, before I was able to continue.” Such a display of emotion goes against established notions of a staff organizer’s role: “We were there to serve as guides; to help workers navigate their fights, which were not our fights, to win unions that were not our unions but belonged to the workers who had fought and risked and been moved to build them.” After the training, another organizer reprimands Pitkin for taking up crucial time. Is the rebuke justified? The definition of solidarity “is ‘unity or agreement of feeling or action,’” Pitkin writes. “Feeling or action. What would it mean to build a union on both?”

On the Line, Pitkin’s first-person account of the five-year campaign to organize industrial laundry factories in Phoenix, is driven by her own attempts to answer this question. The book is epistolary, written as a series of letters to Alma Gomez García, a laundry worker at the factory who led the campaign on which Pitkin spent her early years as a UNITE organizer. The two first meet in 2003, at Gomez García’s house. Soil sort, Gomez García’s job, involves tossing linens that arrive on a conveyor belt—sheets, towels, gowns—into bins. There is blood and puke and feces. There are scalpels and used syringes. Sometimes workers’ gloves slip off and they must handle the linen with their bare hands. Gomez García conveys all of this in Spanish, acting out the motions of the industrial machines to assist Pitkin, who has yet to master the language. 

Gomez García quickly proves to be a key leader, clandestinely gathering a list of workers’ phone numbers from the production floor and assessing which must be won to the effort if it is to succeed before the boss’s anti-union campaign begins to sow confusion and fear. “We drove in circles around the city,” writes Pitkin. “We packed and unpacked the folding chairs for our committee meetings. We knocked on thousands of doors. We asked people to trust us, and they did.” The two make leaflets at Kinko’s, choosing the color of the paper to match the mood of the words printed upon it. They call workers, pretending to offer free shampoo samples to get their home addresses, a trick born of necessity.

In pinning these details to the page, Pitkin not only demystifies the process of union organizing but stakes out a position as to what an organizer should do and what a union should be. Action without feeling? Moving without being moved? In On the Line, such dichotomies are rejected as neither workable nor fruitful for the end goal of building a union with staying power. 

Ladies' Tailors' Union protestors during the "Uprising of the 20,000" strike, New York, February 5, 1910. Library of Congress
Ladies' Tailors' Union protestors during the "Uprising of the 20,000" strike, New York, February 5, 1910. Library of Congress

The multinational corporation that owns the facility, Sodexho Alliance, is a prime target of UNITE’s efforts to organize the hazardous, low-paying laundry industry. The Sodexho campaign is brutal. The company threatens to close the factory. Gomez García and several other workers are fired, chipping away at what had been a pro-union majority. The union loses the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election by twenty-eight votes. (Sodexho later offers Gomez García a new, lower-paying position; aware that her refusal could affect the union’s future, she accepts.) UNITE files dozens of unfair-labor-practice charges against Sodexho, but company stalling, encouraged by inadequate labor laws, leaves workers in the lurch. When the NLRB finds that Sodexho managers broke the law and orders them to begin bargaining a contract, the corporation appeals. Management taunts workers. Morale plummets.

Pitkin, though a staff organizer and not a Sodexho worker, is no mere observer. As the legal battle drags on, her life unravels. She and her partner break up. She spends days in a motel, smoking out the window and forgetting to eat. Many in the labor movement prefer not to speak of such things publicly, reserving “personal issues” or criticisms of union strategy for late-night venting sessions (or never mentioning them at all). On the Line contravenes that norm, offering such information up unsparingly: here’s what it really is like, inside the movement. 

Sodexho is the villain for the bulk of On the Line. But union dysfunction enters the scene in the final chapters. As the Sodexho workers await a resolution, UNITE merges with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), becoming what is now known as UNITE HERE. HERE has organizing aspirations, and UNITE has money, so why not join forces? 

But UNITE organizers soon complain of HERE’s organizing culture, especially a practice called “pink-sheeting.” This is a way organizers get workers to trust them by sharing personal stories. The goal is to extract similar disclosures from workers, which—at least at one point, before the digital era—are then logged on a pink piece of paper. Organizers draw on such information when they feel workers are flagging or insufficiently committed, using traumas and fears against workers to keep them tied to the effort. (HERE is not the first union to operate in such ways; famously, Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers did, too.) 

“I was disturbed by this pseudoscience, by the idea that leadership, to [HERE], had less to do with a person’s relationship to their coworkers than with their relationship to the union’s staff organizers,” writes Pitkin. “I could understand the allure of this idea—that solidarity could be assembled and packaged, perfectly mass-produced, that a working-class movement could be efficiently built in this way—but I did not believe it.”

When Gomez García tells Pitkin she was asked personal questions by a HERE organizer, Pitkin snaps, warning the organizer against speaking to Gomez García. UNITE’s organizing director flies to Phoenix and offers Pitkin a promotion that is “not really a choice.” She can no longer remain at the local office. Pitkin does not tell Gomez García that she is leaving, not when picking her up from a shift at the factory, not on the way to the office, not while they put together a leaflet “on the importance of seniority over favoritism and made copies on the office machine, for which you chose blue paper, because you said that it is a calming color.” She can only work up the courage to call Gomez García from the airport. Even then, Pitkin hopes she won’t pick up.

Pitkin returns to Phoenix for contract negotiations after six months away, during which time she and Gomez García have talked only three times, “each time your voice quieter, deeper, farther away than the call before.” The two do not speak for a long time after that visit. Pitkin becomes UNITE’s organizing director in 2007, heading all laundry organizing across the United States. The internal war between UNITE and HERE gets uglier: a take-back attempt on local offices by UNITE results in war. Pitkin drives to Phoenix, changing the office’s locks to keep out the HERE organizers. One night, those organizers storm the building, rushing the door as UNITE organizers barricade it. Gomez García is among the crowd outside, visible through the glass door. “We stood looking at each other for some immeasurable stretch of time, and it seemed to me that we were sliding down into the still center of the storm all around.”

Pitkin leads her organizers into battle: “I directed them to do appalling things.” They sabotage hotel-organizing drives, and when the staffers complain that they do not want to do such things, she fires one of them. She stops eating; her skin turns yellow. Another organizer, a mentor, tells her to go home and see a doctor. She does, and never returns to the union.

Gomez García, of course, remains. In 2018, Pitkin sees a photo of her on the Facebook page of a union-organizer acquaintance. She asks him for her number, and though he passes it along, he says that he does not know anything about Gomez García. Writes Pitkin: “I had to explain that she had founded the laundry workers’ local in Arizona, that she had been fired doing it, that she had taken on a wealthy multinational corporation and won.” Pitkin herself returns to labor organizing, taking a position with Workers United. Her book ends with a list of resources for organizing your workplace.

It’s crucial to have staff organizers who, like Pitkin, are committed to building worker power. But when fly-in organizers fly back out, all that remains is workers’ “solidarity, this mixture of hope and care,” which Pitkin describes as “the way bodies, our bodies, working collectively, change the properties of the space between them.” As García Gomez puts it one night, after her coworkers help chase off a worker’s abusive boyfriend, “The company can do what they want with their recognition. We already have our union.” 

Alex Press is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine.