Newsletter #43: Telling Labor’s Story with Daisy Pitkin

By Maia Silber

For a brief moment in the early years of the Great Depression, revolutionary literature was all the rage. Novelists, poets, and playwrights called themselves “proletarians,” and both mainstream publications and radical magazines solicited workers’ accounts from the picket line. Then, suddenly, it came to a stop. “The great proletarian novel has been shelved,” the magazine Literary America declared in 1936.

As the cultural historian Michael Denning has argued, the brief movement of avant-garde literary radicalism that seemed to fizzle out in the 1930s left a subtle but lasting influence on the American novel. Still, few works of fiction and literary nonfiction today tell the “strike stories, prison stories, [and] work stories” that Mike Gold called for as editor of the New Masses in 1928. That’s unfortunate not only because contemporary audiences lack a cultural representation of working-class struggle and activism, but because organizing itself is a kind of literary work. To form a union is to tell a story about a workplace: a story about who has power in it and how they got it, a story that imagines what the workplace might look like freed from that power’s grip.

On this week’s episode of The Dig, Jacobin editor Micah Uetricht guests hosts for an interview with Daisy Pitkin, who has told labor’s story both as an organizer herself and as the author of the memoir On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union. Organizing industrial laundry workers for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE), Pitkin and her comrades took on bosses determined to suppress workers’ agitation at almost any cost and challenged a legal system that robs workers of their most effective organizing tools — while allowing employers’ violations to go unpunished.

Listen to this week’s episode here.

While the challenges unions face in a hostile legal landscape are at best abstract to most people who haven’t tried to organize one, organizers themselves often tell tales of workers’ triumphs and failures in their campaigns. As an organizer, Pitkin told the stories of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the 1909 Uprising of 20,000 not as ancient histories but as live, ongoing struggles. But Pitkin feels uneasy with how union leaders often deploy history. The rally narrative of the Uprising of 20,0000 as a spontaneous call to arms by Clara Shavelson skips over the years of movement-building that enabled Shavelson and her allies in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to mobilize an entire community in a general strike.

Pitkin’s desire for more complexity in the labor movement’s narratives about its own past calls to mind another mode of labor storytelling that flourished at the same time as the proletarian novel (and trained some of the genre’s authors). In the early twentieth century, as historian Tobias Higbie has written, unions organized schools, public symposia, and other programs for workers that resisted top-down revolutionary education in favor of encouraging workers to draw on their own experiences to understand the capitalist system. These traditions of collective, bottom-up storytelling might provide a more useful model for organizers today. If unions are to envision a form of worker power that doesn’t merely mimic the power of the boss, as Pitkin urges, they must draw from the communal imaginary as much as organizers’ repository of lore.

The great proletarian novel may be written yet. In the meantime, workers are living labor’s story.

Further Reading

Daisy Pitkin’s On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union is reviewed by Micah Uetricht in The New Republic. Read about the rich history of radical cultural production in Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century and Tobias Higbie’s Labor’s Mind: A History of Working-Class Intellectual Life.

One of my own favorite labor memoirs is Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers, which focuses on the paid and unpaid women’s work that sustained Jewish immigrant households in turn-of-the-century New York.