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Working Today: In New Book, Rank-and-File Unionists Talk Shop

Elizabeth Gottlieb’s “We Are One: Stories of Work, Life and Love” showcases the benefits wrought by contemporary unions.

Union miners in Wisconsin marching in April 2011. (Photo: Wisconsin ALF-CIO)

We Are One: Stories of Work, Life and Love, Elizabeth R. Gottlieb, Hard Ball Press, 2015

When Elizabeth Gottlieb tried to bring a union into the nursery school that employed her as a teacher in the late 1980s, she got a firsthand glimpse at the anti-union attitudes that had already become pervasive. Fear of management retribution, she writes, was obvious, compounded by the belief that union members pay exorbitant dues and get next to nothing in return. As she talked to her colleagues, it became apparent that they imagined unions as bureaucracies run by cigar-chomping fat cats. This fallacy has continued to undercut and derail today’s workplace organizing efforts.

We Are One contests this stereotype by introducing 33 rank-and-file unionists from every region of the United States, of all ages and races, and in a wide array of occupations – ballet dancer to iron worker, firefighter to pianist, airline pilot to home health aide. All of the workers’ voices are captured in oral histories that respond to a uniform set of questions: how they self-define; what their day-to-day work life is like (or was like, for those who are already retired); what they hope will change as they age; and how they define success. Central to these accounts is the role that unions have played in the workers’ personal and professional trajectories.

The people interviewed wax eloquent about the benefits of union membership, mentioning better pay in a safer environment.

The people interviewed wax eloquent about the benefits of union membership, mentioning pensions, shorter or more predictable hours, training programs and simply better pay in a safer environment. And, while several are somewhat critical of their unions’ entrenched racism and sexism, the book presents unions as a positive force and emphasizes how much can be won by workplace organizing and activism.

Actor Danny Glover’s foreword highlights the benefits gleaned from collective, rather than individual, action. The son of a postal employee, Glover notes that at their best, worker alliances represent “a strong and everlasting sense of community,” something exemplified by his father’s union, the National Association of Postal Employees. Early exposure to that union, Glover explains, taught him the value of presenting a united front to management and, later, influenced his activism on behalf of exploited workers in Hollywood and beyond.

Gottlieb takes this one step further, adding that unions not only benefit workers on the job but also influence public policy more generally. “When people come together in a union,” she writes in the book’s introduction, “they can curb corporate greed, aid a flailing economy, and bring about wider cultural change.”

How they do this, however, is barely addressed in the book’s first-person narratives – a major failing. Nonetheless, as a showcase for the benefits wrought by contemporary unions, it shines.

Nathan Banks, a freelance violinist based in Worden, Illinois, is a case in point. Since Banks has not been able to find full-time work with an orchestra, he cobbles together a living by teaching two days a week and then traveling to play with regional symphonies throughout the Midwest.

He is a member of the American Federation of Musicians. “When I first joined I was pretty young,” he tells Gottlieb. Membership was mandatory. “I just knew I needed it so I could do certain jobs in St. Louis that I wanted to do, because they wouldn’t hire non-union labor.” He now champions this requirement and has seen what organizing can achieve.

As an itinerant member of the Illinois Symphony, Banks was instrumental in bringing in the musicians’ union. “We organized a vote of no confidence in the music director” after the director bullied visiting orchestra members from Europe about their immigration status, Banks reports. The outraged musicians next contacted the American Federation of Musicians for advice about next steps. A subsequent organizing drive led to a 54-5 vote in favor of unionization.

“The main advantage of having the collective bargaining agreement is that it gives us meaningful input into our workplace,” Banks adds. “We have some say in what conditions we’re going to play under and what kind of musicians are going to be on stage with us, and we just don’t have to suffer from the whims of management.”

Management whims are apparent in other art forms, too. According to Kimberly Marie Braylock, a dancer in the San Francisco Ballet Company, the whims of an imperious director or choreographer can derail an artist’s passion for performance, which is why she is grateful to be protected by the American Guild of Musical Artists. But this wasn’t always the case. When Braylock first became part of the troupe at age 19, she, like Nathan Banks, knew little about unions and resented the idea of having to pay dues. That changed when she discovered the benefits of membership. “We have things in our contract that limit how many hours we can work,” she begins. “Like, if we override those hours we get paid extra. We get breaks every hour. There’s a whole list of benefits that we get and physical therapy and things that will keep our bodies intact…. We’re putting our bodies at risk, and our bodies are our career.”

“In the factory, the union gives you a voice. If you don’t feel like you are treated right, you go to your union representatives.”

Lynda Mobley, a retired school bus driver from Republic, Ohio, got involved in the Ohio Association of Public School Employees (OAPSE) for a very different reason: blatant sexism. “There was favoritism,” she says. “To give an example, if there was a football game, the man would get to drive every one of them. Why? Because they didn’t think it was fitting for a woman to drive the bus. That was in ’78 or ’79. There were enough people that were unhappy, so I said, ‘Let’s have a meeting.’ We interviewed two different unions. We chose OAPSE.” Since then, Mobley has taken union-sponsored classes in arbitration and has learned to handle grievances; despite being retired, she remains active. “I think I would pucker up and die if I didn’t have a lot of contact with people,” the 76-year-old reports. She is currently working to expose the anti-union thrust behind so-called “right-to-work” laws.

Elsy Rivas, a 24-year-old Salvadoran immigrant employed in a Massachusetts garment factory, is also working to undercut anti-union messaging. Prior to her current job, Rivas worked at Target and told Gottlieb that “when you start working [there], they give you a little video where it shows you why you shouldn’t talk to the union and why you don’t want the union in the company and why the union’s not good. I didn’t know better. Target was my first job.”

After leaving that position and going to the factory, Rivas admits that she was appalled to discover that she needed to join UNITE/HERE. “Now that I’m part of the union and I’ve worked in a union, I look back at the Target video and I’m like, ‘Wow, I really believed that’ … Now I think that what Target was telling me is not true at all. They were trying to cover themselves so they would not have to deal with a union because a union is more expensive.”

Rivas is proud to have come to this conclusion and is proud to assist other immigrants in the low-wage garment industry. “This is what I want to do,” she says. “I want to help these people understand. In the factory, the union gives you a voice. If you don’t feel like you are treated right, you go to your union representatives. They’ll try to fix things.”

This, she concludes, is how she gauges success; it comes from collaborating with others and trying to make life better for all.

Rivas’ coworkers and union brothers and sisters agree. In fact, the people Gottlieb includes in We Are One make clear that they are happiest and feel most fulfilled when they stand up for justice and offer aid, comfort and tangible assistance to those who need it. While most say that they would like to have enough money to travel, money does not figure prominently for any of the people interviewed. Indeed, the words of filmmaker John Sayles, one of the 33 interviewed, are representative: “If somebody gets to live the life they want to, or does the work they want to, they’re successful.”

The majority of people in the book also list family, whether biological or chosen, and religious faith, on their roster of what is needed to live a successful life. Still, trade unions are placed front and center as a means of reaching this goal.

That said, it behooves us to follow Gottlieb’s lead and remember that whether we’re talking about Social Security, the eight-hour day, paid sick leave, holiday or vacation pay, or health and safety protections on the job, we owe a huge thank you to the US labor movement. We Are One is a small expression of that gratitude.