I had some unexpected travel last week and grabbed the nearest library book to read on the plane. On the Line: a Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union had come to my attention due to a pro-union cat on twitter (@jortsthecat – which if you haven’t encountered, I promise he and Jean are worth taking a quick deep dive). I don’t know if it was the time/place I was reading it, or my affection for the recommending source and their tone, or the actual writing of the book but this one was firmly middle of the road for me.
On the Line is Daisy Pitkin’s retelling of her time spent as a union organizer for industrial laundries in Phoenix, Arizona. In it she captures her own mindset, and the questions she was asking herself about the work as well as her relationships she had with the workers in the laundry – especially Alma (with whom the profits of the book are shared). It also documents the strategies her union (UNITE) attempted to use to organize the laundry, those of the union they merged with during the five-year campaign, and the fallout for all involved as the struggled against a rather vicious anti-union campaign from the company.
There were parts of this book that I enjoyed, and that I think are important as we reckon with labor laws that have been eroded to the point of being too weak to help most workers fight back and win in the United States. Based on who I am as a person the sections where Pitkin lays out the actual history of the unions which eventually become UNITE (garment workers) and how that story is mythologized were the strongest for me as they are both important social history but provide a lens to view organizing and its costs. I appreciated that Pitkin explicitly reckons with the privilege she brought with her into her experience in Phoenix and the imbalance of power that comes from top-down organizing but I was left with the sensation that while she named it, she didn’t fully interrogate it or land on a final thought.
What didn’t work for me were the sections of this book that make up the other half of the narrative. I know Pitkin was going for a metaphor or allegory in unpacking her consistent nightmares about moths during her time organizing in Phoenix and her later continued fascination with studying them, but the sections stood starkly in contrast with the other half. The other thing isn’t the book’s fault so I’m not weighing it against my rating (not Pitkin’s fault I’m currently very mad at my union and reps).