In Daisy Pitkin’s new book, On the Line, she braids three narratives: an autobiographical telling of her time as a staff organizer on a high-profile industrial laundry campaign; a lyrical meditation on moths — the creatures themselves, the (mostly) men who hunt, pin, and study them, and the (mostly) women who nurture them as part of their work in the silk industry; and a reconsideration of UNITE’s origin story through the untold history of the union organizer Clara Lemlich, who led the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

Dania Rajendra sat down with Pitkin to talk about the dynamics between staff and volunteer leaders, questions of personal and political risk-taking, institutional culture, and political struggle across a century of union fights in the US. Their conversation has been edited and condensed. 


Dania Rajendra: You use the second person, direct address to the worker leader, Alma. How do you think about the book in relation to Alma and also in relation to the reader?

Daisy Pitkin: Part of the book is really about what it feels like to be on an organizing campaign. And of course, most of it is about what it feels like to be on an organizing campaign from my perspective; it's a personal narrative, it's a memoir. What does it feel like to lead a campaign from the position of paid staff organizer? And I think that there's so many good labor books in the world, but there aren't many that I have found that actually feel like organizing work. I was in a space in my life where I was thinking a lot about that and remembering it from a distance, and I wanted to find a way through prose to create that.

It was also at a time, a couple years after I left the labor movement, that a bunch of things happened all at once. I ran into a truck driver who is viciously anti-union and had worked at Alma's factory and was collecting the bar rags from a bar where I was working at the time. And then that same night, I ended up in the hospital in Tucson at the university medical center, which happens to be a client of Alma's factory.

And I was really sick. I was in the emergency room, and I was laying on these sheets and covered in blankets that I knew that she would touch, and I started generating some material that I didn't know was going to be a book or a part of a book. I was just journaling really, but it came out in this watershed. I'd been purposely not thinking about the work that I had done for the union for a whole bunch of reasons, but I was trying not to think about it. And then suddenly, I let myself think about it. And it all came out in this rush. And it just came out as an address to Alma. And I think part of that was because I was really missing her, missing the connection that I had with her, and it was a way to grieve. But also it's because organizing work is, to me, a form of intimacy; even in all of its freneticism and urgency, there's a lot of intimacy. And so it was natural for me to write it in this address to Alma. And I decided to keep that form in the book because I think it... I don't know if it invites readers into the intimacy of that space or if it just performs the intimacy or gestures toward it enough so that readers can understand it as a space of intimacy.

Rajendra: One of the things I find amongst the most remarkable in the book is the way in which you hold the emotion of what it is to be a paid staff organizer in the thick of an organizing campaign and the subsequent distance and self-reflection, which is not always part of the process.

Pitkin: I think that's right. We're not trained to do it. We're trained to debrief. But we don't debrief who we are, the bigger, what it is that we did, what it is that we're doing, what it is that we're building, and the ways that it gets built on a campaign. The organizing that I was trained to do was purposefully unsentimental. To me the difference between debriefing and reflecting has to do with feeling. And the way that I was trained was to avoid any of the messiness of our own feelings as organizers getting involved in the campaign because the campaign was not about us. It's about workers fighting and risking to build a union in their own workplace. And we're meant to be these perfect conduits to that process and to not have any involvement, to leave the process untarnished of our own feelings and perspectives and messiness as people.

But I think in doing that we often did a disservice, both because we're not perfect conduits and pretending as though we are doesn't mean that we aren't. Everything we do on a campaign, the relationships that we build, the particular ways that we build them, the words that we use to describe a union or to give a vision to what it means to work collectively, all of that gives shape to a union that workers are fighting to join. And we shouldn't pretend that it doesn't. 

I needed space in the book to actually do the reflective work necessary to examine my own position in the campaign and the power dynamics at play, the power that the position I had held. And I think the moths allow for that to happen in some ways, and untangling the narrative of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the uprising of the 20,000 helped me think more directly about the work that we were doing in Phoenix.

Rajendra: There's a really interesting tension that the history brings up, which is that a union should belong to the workers who have formed it and who belong to it. And all of us have a stake, even those of us who are not paid professional staff, in the success of unions. And that boundary is really complicated and complex, and changes as the political economy changes. 

Pitkin: That's a really interesting observation about the book. I've thought about it in terms of my hope generally that the book would find its way to readers who might not otherwise pick up a book about labor because I have a sense that that's important. And it's important right now for people to realize that they have a stake, whether or not they're a member of a union or whether or not they're in an industry that's actively organizing or that they or their coworkers are considering organizing. I can't imagine there being any path to liberation under capitalism that doesn't involve an engaged working class that is struggling alongside the communities in which it's embedded. And we have to figure out how to build that right now. But I think what you're saying about the book and the ways in which it reaches outside of the narrative about union organizing — that it performs in some ways the boundarylessness of the struggle that is in front of us — I hadn't thought about it in exactly that way, but I like that idea a lot.

Rajendra: I want to ask a question about gender. I read your book as a deeply feminist one and a compliment, I think, to the implicit male, objective 19th century scientist but also to the macho nonsense embedded in trying to be a perfect conduit, which is very much about the gender-inflected struggles you talk about around that early history of the union.

Pitkin: I think that's one of the most important ideas in the book; it's about stereotypical male emotions. I don't quite have the language to talk about it, which is why it took me 250 pages in a book to try to unwind it. The union that I worked for then and the union that I work for now, the primary emotion in organizing — the one that it was most okay to access — was anger. And the mode of the campaign was this closely held but constantly seething outrage or righteous indignation. And most things that we did were couched in terms of aggression [that the union had] against the boss and that the boss had against workers and against the union, that it was a struggle, that it was a battle. And the boss had power and it was our job to take power away from the boss and empower workers.

It's a macho way of organizing. That kind of rage and organizing through rage can be powerful, but for me, it's not a sustainable way to organize. It was not comfortable for me to sit in a moment of rage and try to sustain it for long periods of time for years and years.

What I found myself going to instead was care and mutual aid and love, which are stereotypically emotions and forms of communication and forms of interpersonal bond building that are more feminine or maybe feminist in a way. And I have a hard time talking about this because it's more nuanced than saying, this is a feminist corrective of the Saul Alinksy style of organizing, which is all about, like, “Get the workers together and outflank the boss.” And it's all these war metaphors — or sports metaphors even — that are all about battle and aggression. And a lot of movements of resistance use that language and thrive on that emotional foundation. 

When we do that, I think, what we end up doing is orienting ourselves at all times around the thing that must be resisted. And then what you're building can only ever live in the margins around that central thing. We can only get so far that way. And what we really need to do – and in fact what we do often do, whether we talk about it or not — is build another world entirely that has nothing to do with that central thing. It decenters that thing, it destabilizes, it just makes it unimportant because we're building something else that becomes the world that we live in. And that is an alternate form of power.

Rajendra: At the beginning of the book, you encounter the cynical, like, "Oh, you're on your way up," from your more senior colleagues. And then you step away or are repelled from that trajectory. And I wondered if you would reflect on another way of thinking about what it is to make a life in organizing and to have a life that is beyond organizing too. The training I received as an organizer is that you just keep going into higher and higher positions with more and more power, whether or not that's a trajectory that's right for one as a human or right for the movement in which you're in.

Pitkin: I think it should be more generally embraced by the movement that there's space for people to come in and out because the work we do is very difficult and burnout is real. And it's true that the people who stay often end up in higher and higher positions of power. What that means is that the people who are able to withstand their own burnout —  because I don't know that I've ever met anyone in the labor movement who has not reached some level of burnout — are the people who end up in positions of power in unions. And what does that mean about the structure of unions? That's like the people who can tolerate the most pain get the most power often.

Rajendra: Or who have wives or wife-like relationships to thank for sustaining them.

Pitkin: Yes, there is a whole social reproductive element to the current structure of labor. I don't think it's the best way to structure a union; I think we miss out on a lot when we do that. And I think, what if instead it was encouraged for people to leave for periods of time, go and do other things? Study, take time off, do other kinds of community engaged work, come back and bring fresh eyes and new skills to the labor movement.

It was absolutely necessary for me. I reached a point where I just, I couldn't function. My body was shutting down. My kidneys were shutting down. And I didn't even know it. Someone else had to tell me. And now, I talk to people I was working with at the time, and they all knew. They all knew that I was really, really ill and no one could... In a culture that is meant to be unsentimental and where you're not supposed to talk about your own feelings and messiness as a human being, it seems inappropriate for even people who are close to you to approach you and say, "You don't seem well." So no one did until finally someone who didn't even work for UNITE — who was outside of our union and its structure, who had been mentoring me from the outside — came to me and said, "You have to stop. This is not okay." And I did. And I went home and I thought, oh, I'm just going to go to the doctor and rest for a couple of weeks and I'll be back. And then it kept extending itself. And then finally, a human resources person from the union called and said, "I've been told that you've quit." In that moment, I knew that it was true, but I didn't come to the conscious decision to leave; it just happened.

I think of how much talent and heart and passion the labor movement misses out on through its current structure, not encouraging people to take breaks and have balance and reflect and all of that. But it could also be couched in terms of resources. Think how many resources we spend bringing people in, training them, all of that. And then to lose it over and over and over again is wild.

Rajendra: Yeah, wasteful.

Pitkin: Wasteful. Imagine a sabbatical system, like every four years you got a paid year or six months to reflect. It wouldn't be that you're completely unplugged; it would be your job for a certain amount of time to rest and reflect and maybe learn something new, read some stuff, come back at the end of it, give a report on what you did on your sabbatical, what you learned. We should build something like that into the system because we're missing out I think.

Rajendra: I've been thinking about the relative ossification and plasticity of these institutions, which are so much still rooted in the moments that shaped them — whether that's the 30s or the 40s or the McCarthyism of the 50s. 

Pitkin: I think the ossification… relating it to gender, relating it to that early 1900 scientist, these men who felt themselves perfectly unbiased observers of the world and [who believed] that there is a science to everything. Everything can be classified. There's a rational way to organize. There's a science to organizing. That's all very male centered, patriarchal. And that is exactly what the moth men did with the moths. They went out and collected them. They pinned them. They wrote to each other about them. They got obsessed with them in some weird ways; it makes me slightly uncomfortable thinking about it.

And then you contrast that with the silk workers in Lyon, where women were working with moths, and the way that knowledge worked was so very different from the way knowledge was meant to work in that more male scientific world.

And a lot of it was mystical and superstitious, like a folk knowledge that was passed among women through word of mouth. And I'm interested in thinking about the difference between those two things, but then I was trying to relate it to what you're saying about autotheory and the institutions of today.

Part of it is that they need to be living, breathing institutions. In the years after the Triangle fire and before the Wagner Act even, there were massive education arms to unions. There were choruses and marching bands and theaters, and unions bought apartment buildings in Manhattan and other places. And people, literally members of unions, lived in the same communities and the same buildings together. There's something about allowing for a world to be built inside the union that I think will lend itself to more of the kind of autotheory and just lyricism — art and music and laughter and soul — and all of the things that lend themselves to the thinking and reflection that we're talking about, that we're really yearning for. For the labor movement to be a place where a whole world is built and not just a staging ground for a battle or a fight feels really important. And I think if that were to happen, it would just be a natural place for the kind of reflection that we're talking about because it will invite it in because there's a whole life being lived there.

Rajendra: What about the role of poetry in your writing process, and the ways in which poetry offers us opportunities to gesture at things that are too hard or best left unsaid? 

Pitkin: A lot of my favorite literature that exists in the world right now is in the realm of autotheory. And often autotheory tends toward lyricism because actually being curious about the self is a lyrical process. And you have to sit with being known and unknown at the same time, knowing yourself and being curious about yourself at the same time. After years of being really disembodied and not aware of my own self and actually trained to be unaware of my own self in some ways, the act of looking at myself felt difficult and lyrical. And so it came to me in that way.

I think that organizing is also very lyrical work — like the feeling of when people come together and do something collectively. And there's something about it that's more than the sum of its parts. If you get 100 people together in the street chanting, it feels like something more than 100 people standing in the street saying the same words together. It feels like something more. And I think trying to describe that thing that's more than the sum of the parts — the thing that is the collective — there's not a lot of language, at least not in English, that appropriately describes that. And so the lyricism is like wrangling with English as a language to try to bend it and find the spaces in it to describe that feeling, to bring it onto the page, to bring it into being through language, which of course can only ever approximate experience.

Rajendra: What are you reading? What might you encourage organizers to think about reading now?

Pitkin: There are two kinds of reading lists that I always have in mind, and one of them is the autotheory reading list. That's people struggling with language and using it to think about themselves and their own positionality in the world. And that seems an important thing for organizers to do. So I'm talking about Maggie Nelson and Aisha Sabatini Sloan, Arian Warjez. They're some writers who examine their own lives in ways that I find really useful, but they don't lend themselves specifically to organizers and organizing. But they think about power and queerness and whiteness and institutions like marriage and what they mean in the world. And so they provide tools for the examination of self and institution that can be useful. So that's one set of readings. 

I'm really encouraged by books that tell the story of movements as the worlds that they are, as opposed to the movements that are structured in opposition to the thing that must be resisted. And I love Nick Estes’s book about the Dakota Access pipeline. I love Tara Hunter's book, To ‘joy my freedom. I love Jenny Worley; the book that she wrote about the Lusty Lady’s organizing, called Neon Girls, is really good. It's just rich with anecdote and it's a juicy story about how these strippers and sex workers banded together and formed a union at the Lusty Lady but then took it over; it's a worker-owned co-op now, and the solidarity that they built with each other is really important.

I love the book Stonewall by Martin Duberman. It tells the story of the Stonewall uprising but then follows four people in the year after Stonewall as they figure out how to organize the first Gay Pride parade in New York City. And what it looked like to move from Stonewall to Gay Pride and everything that had to be built on a daily basis to get to that point by following these four people's lives. It's a really good book.


Created with Sketch.

Related Articles