New Book, “On the Line,” Explores Invisible Labor in the Second Guilded Age

by Jody DiPerna

Daisy Pitkin is a union organizer and a writer. She now lives in Pittsburgh. Her new book, “On the Line:  A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) tells the story of a fierce battle to unionize a commercial laundry in Phoenix, Arizona.

Daisy Pitkin’s book braids together several stories, the primary of which is her time with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) helping workers form a union at an industrial laundry. Pitkin worked with other organizers and other workers in the plant, but she worked most closely with Alma (a pseudonym used to protect the real Alma), a leader in forming the union, who worked on the soil side of the Phoenix laundry. 

She worked for several years on that campaign starting in 2003, and early on, she writes of just some of the dangers of the work in the laundry:  “… you were demanding a seemingly simple thing:  to work your eight- or ten-hour shift and come home unharmed. You wanted gloves that hospital needles cannot puncture. You wanted face masks to keep the blood and fluids from other bodies from entering your bodies. You wanted safety guards put back on machines where they had been removed. You wanted linen dust cleaned from the rafters to prevent fires.” 

Much of “On the Line” is written to Alma, revealing the real connection of two comrades in arms, their shared jokes, and Pitkin’s preoccupation with moths. There is regret, too, over the things that went unsaid because they felt too hard or too intimate to ever discuss openly. Alma’s marriage and Pitkin’s personal life remained tacit in their time together. She also writes eloquently about the class and race divide that separated them, no matter how hard they tried to swim against it. Royalties from this book will be shared with Alma. Pitkin is the writer, but the story is both of theirs.

Pitkin says that labor campaigns are exhausting, and considering that Alma was working her regular shifts in the Sodexo owned laundry and working on the campaign in her off-hours, it illustrates the level of dedication necessary to give workers a voice in their lives. 

Organizing work is done in the tiniest of steps. It is a grind. It often means simply trying to talk to workers who have already been threatened or misled. In the case of the work that Alma and Pitkin undertook, it meant talking to workers who were mostly immigrants and who were afraid of losing their jobs.

“Driving and endless circles around Phoenix with Alma, getting the folding chairs and unfolding them in the yard and getting the coolers. Making the leaflets and all of those sort of menial, repetitive tasks. They are a part of the everyday work of organizing and that’s where trust and solidarity are built,” Pitkin said.

It is not glamorous, but there is hope. Solidarity isn’t built with a single speech or Sally Field standing on a table, according to Pitkin. In her experience, a union is built in all of those moments before the speech and before the table. The strength is built through the grind.

“I was trying to think about where the will to fight comes from? Where does the courage to fight really come from?” Pitkin said. “What I realize is that people are driven to fight because they witness their own capacity to fight and it changes them — people are transformed by watching their own ability to fight.”

photo by Scott Bucha

In “On the Line ” Pitkin also recounts two stories from the earliest 21st century that are pertinent here. The largest strike by women in American history occurred in November, 1909, as more than 20,000 garment workers, mostly young women, mostly Yiddish-speaking immigrants, mounted an eleven-week general strike in New York. And the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 wherein 146 people died. As Pitkin worked on this book, the echoes from 100-plus years ago became undeniable.

“Their stories bookend a century and they explore industrial danger,” Pitkin said. Just as importantly, there are urgent parallels to work that puts “mostly women, and mostly immigrant women’s bodies on the line.” 

Pitkin grew up in a tiny village outside of Bowling Green, Ohio and lived in Arizona for years, including the time she was working on the UNITE campaign at Alma’s laundry. Pitkin gave up organizing for a few years after that campaign, but is back to it now, living in Pittsburgh and working on the union campaign at Starbucks. Even though campaigns wear on the people involved and one has to tolerate the waves of optimism and exhaustion and despair, she feels exceptionally buoyed by her current work with Starbucks workers.

“There’s this kind of unquellable groundswell happening. It’s just (mostly) young people deciding that they are going to stand up and take on this multibillion dollar corporation. And they’re not going to back down. The company has already landed blow after blow after blow, but the workers just keep getting stronger. It seriously is astounding,” Pitkin said. 

“On the Line” will change the way you think about work that is hidden. When you go out for a drink, you never think of where the bar rags might be laundered. If you have to stay in a hospital, it probably didn’t occur to you to think about where the gown you were wearing was laundered, or who washed the sheets you were laying on. Most of that work happens at industrial laundries and Pitkin brings that right to the front. 

“I feel like it was important for me to open the book in that way — laying in the hospital bed because I did know. I knew exactly where that sheet was going and where those blankets and  the pillowcase and the gown I was wearing. They were all going to go up the I-10 to Alma’s  laundry and she was going to touch them with her hands,” she said.