Summer 2022

EXCERPT: Hiring On as an Organizer


I was still new to the union in 2003, when we launched the campaign at Sodexho—the sprawling multinational multiservice corporation that owned Alma’s laundry factory—and Alma had never been through a union fight either. So we learned together.

Just a few weeks before I got to Phoenix, an organizing director for UNITE (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, then one of the scrappier organizing unions in the United States), a white woman in her late twenties, came to Tucson to interview me, also a white woman, twenty-five. I had just moved there with my then girlfriend to get away from Washington, DC, where an airplane had flown into the Pentagon, and a pair of snipers had been shooting people at gas stations and grocery-store parking lots, and anthrax was being sent around in the mail.

The union was headhunting experienced organizers, which I sort of was after a few years of working on international solidarity campaigns, organizing protests at Gap stores across the country to support striking denim workers in Guatemala and the like. This was important work, but it was indirect. The stores where we would distribute informational leaflets and sometimes argue with mall security guards (whose jobs were also shitty with bad pay) about how close we could stand to the racks of clothes made by the workers we meant to support were thousands of miles away from those workers and the sweatshops they were fighting to change. I think I wanted to be closer to a fight, to put my body in the way of something, without really knowing what that meant or thinking very hard about why I wanted it or what my relationship as an organizer might be to a union fight. The director picked me up from my house at 10 p.m., the standard time for nightly meetings among UNITE organizers, though I did not yet know it. We went to a bar on Fourth Avenue to drink beer and talk about UNITE, about the ambitious industry-wide laundry campaign they wanted to run in Arizona as a test to see if it was possible to organize low-wage immigrant workers, most of whom were women, many of whom were undocumented, in a deep-red state. We both laughed a little and shook our heads at how fucking hard it would be, how much of a war, but then she told me more about the industry, about the conditions in commercial laundry factories; the way managers remove or disable machine safeguards in order to run production faster, the number of workers who get injured and sick and killed. By the start of the second beer, I already had a fire in my gut.

After midnight, we got into her rental car and drove to a Sears call center in South Tucson, another kind of workplace the union was considering as a target, because the industry was growing and work there was also hell. The director wanted to see if we could gather any information that might help in an organizing campaign, and though she did not say it, she also needed to assess my capacity for the more enterprising ways this information could be gathered. She killed the headlights as we pulled into the parking lot. At her signal, I got out and quickly pulled trash bags from a dumpster and stuffed them into the trunk until a motion-detecting light flashed high up on the warehouse wall. I froze when a security guard came out of the building, and before I could duck back in the car, the director had gunned it out onto the street. I sprinted after her for a few long industrial blocks to the spot where she was waiting to pick me up. We pounded cigarettes, holding their glowing tips up to small openings in the car windows, watching the embers catch in the rush of air around the car and then streak diagonally across the windows as she drove me home. I don’t think the guard got the plate number, she said. But, goddamn, he probably made us anyway. When she dropped me off, she said that someone from the New York office would call me in a few days to let me know if I’d gotten the job.

Two days later, someone from the New York office did call. He told me to pick up a rental car at the Tucson airport and drive the three hundred miles across the state of Arizona to Lake Havasu City. Now, he said. Right now. A laundry there had caught fire, and the workers had walked out. They were standing on the sidewalk in front of the factory. When I got there six or so hours later, three other organizers had already arrived from Phoenix and California. The factory was still smoking. A dryer had caught fire, which happens regularly in industrial laundries, where machinery is often poorly maintained. The manager told the workers to keep working—to continue operating washers and presses and folding machines, even as the smoke grew thick around them. He stood between them and the door when they tried to leave, but one of the workers dipped below his outstretched arm and made it to the door, and the other workers, nearly one hundred of them, followed her. When they got outside, one of the workers said she had a cousin who worked in a union laundry in Las Vegas. She walked the few blocks home, called her cousin to get the union’s number, then she called UNITE through its 1-800 hotline.

When I arrived, the nearly one hundred people were standing in small groups in front of the factory, making picket signs and affixing bedsheets to poles and chairs to block the gusting wind and signing up for picket duty and cooking shifts. They had handwritten a petition, listing dangerous working conditions and demanding that they be addressed. One of the organizers told me to pick up a union card, which someone in New York had faxed to a nearby hotel, and to make copies at the Kinko’s in town. When I brought the copies back to the picket line, the worker who had dipped below the manager’s arm, Mariana Rivera, gathered her coworkers and asked them to join the union. She stood on a chair and read the union card aloud in Spanish while one of the organizers stood with a small group of English-speaking workers and interpreted what she said. Mariana told them that they had been fucked for a long time in that factory—that they all knew the machines were not functioning as they should and that they were working too fast to be safe. She told them they’d really be fucked now, if they didn’t all go back in together, speaking with one voice. Every worker standing there signed a card, and they won the strike in three days, because not a single person crossed the picket line. The factory smoldered across the parking lot the whole time.

From ON THE LINE: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union by Daisy Pitkin. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Copyright © 2022 by Daisy Pitkin. All rights reserved.

Daisy Pitkin is now an organizer for Workers United / SEIU on the Starbucks Campaign. She is based in Pittsburgh.

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