reading recommendation #3

This is probably a kind of a weird reading recommendation for most people, but I’m enthusiastically promoting Don’t Sleep with Stevens by Timothy Minchin. Despite the somewhat provocative title, this is a history of the nearly 20-year campaign to organize the J.P. Stevens textile company run by the TWUA (which, through mergers, later became ACTWU, then UNITE! and now exists as UNITE HERE). The movie Norma Rae was loosely based on the struggle to organize just one of the Stevens plants. Minchin was lucky to have considerable access to the organizing staff and the organizing committees of various plants, and the union let him in to their records room, not just to see the victory leaflets, but to read the memos written by heartbroken field organizers who struggled alone for years.

I found a review copy of this book last weekend in the Strand, and have been riveted by it (finally finished it last night). (And BTW, thank goodness for the review copy, because $60 is too much to pay for 264 pages, especially considering all those endnotes.) The campaign to organize Stevens ended over 20 years ago, but some of the major themes that ran through that campaign are echoed today in the debate that’s going on inside of the American labor movement right now, and UNITE HERE is one of the unions that’s right up in there in that debate.

That debate is important, and it’s not getting enough substantive coverage in the media. Oh, it’s getting the labor movement more coverage in the press than we’ve had in probably fifteen years, don’t get me wrong. But the press has lost the ability to really understand the debate, and consequently, they’re doing a pretty bad job of actually explaining it to people.

The book tells the story of how one union decides to fight the shrinking of their membership by organizing the second largest company in their industry, which had been steadily moving plants to the south. (This of course was pre-NAFTA, when you just moved to the Southern US to avoid paying decent wages, not south of the border.) The union runs a massive campaign, which includes a very early corporate campaign (where a union or community organization tries to change a company’s business practices not just from within, but also by influencing the board, the company’s creditors, etc.) At one point, there is a comment in the book by an ACTWU official explaining how they are spending about 50% of their national budget to organize the unorganized (in the 70s). Let me assure you, that there are few union officials in the US today who are able to truthfully make such a statement. In fact, the bulk of the debate in labor right now is around a proposal from some unions (SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, Teamsters & UFCW) that the AFL-CIO should reward unions that dedicate at least 10% of their budgets to organizing. What this implies, of course, is that most of them don’t spend even that much. If the Textile Workers couldn’t organize a majority of all Stevens’ plants while spending half of their budget on that effort, how will anyone ever organize Wal-Mart, or McDonalds, or any national or global company, while only spending 10% or less on that work?

In addition, Minchin goes into some detail about the decisions that lead TWUA to merge several times with other unions in their industry–to get power, to get more resources, to get access to key staff (particularly Ray Rogers, who ran the fascinating Farah Pants boycott of the early 70s). The other major element of the debate in labor right now is a proposal to encourage more small unions to merge, for precisely those reasons.

I liked this book for the same reason that I liked Clark Johnson’s movie about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, entitled Boycott. Because it shows how really hard it is to organize a mass movement of ordinary folks who have to stick together while fighting an oppressive power structure. So often, the history of social justice movements are just told in a quick and reductionist way–“Rosa Parks was tired,” “hippies protested the war and it ended,” “women burned their bras and they got better jobs.” There’s a moment in Boycott where the organizers have to deal with a guy who’s pissed off because his car is getting mud in it from carrying so many people who aren’t riding the buses. That’s a moment from that movie that I will always remember, because it is so real. I know that guy. I’ve been that organizer, trying to make someone see the value in giving up something tangible (the cleanliness of his prized car) to achieve a higher common good (the right to ride–and drive–the buses).

I was bitching a few weeks ago about the negative effects of reality tv on investigative journalism, and so I feel compelled to give credit to a book that tells a real story, about real people, fighting to make a difference for their families.

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July 9, 2005. books for grown-ups.

One Comment

  1. Comfort Addict replied:

    That sounds good. I’ll put it on my Amazon wish list.

    Thanks for your support during the last couple of weeks.

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