Book Notes: Winter 2022

Book Notes is a compilation of works by and of interest to WCSA members. Please enjoy this Winter 2022 edition!

Essential: How the Pandemic Transformed the Long Fight for Worker Justice (Basic Books), Jamie McCallum

During the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, many low-wage workers were lauded as “essential,” but most often that meant they needed to risk their and their families’ health by going to work.  Whatever praise and honor they received from the press and politicians did not translate into respect, better conditions, and risk-pay at work.  Jamie McCallum documents this in Essential, but he has a larger story to tell.  His thesis is that during the pandemic, “increasingly furious” abused and under-paid workers initiated a new stage of worker militancy that will further develop in a post-pandemic US.  Sara Nelson, Association of Flight Attendants president, recommends it: “By combining rich storytelling from the front lines of the pandemic and a deep historical lens, Essential brings to life a critical reality: Capitalism is quite literally killing us, and only through worker solidarity across our economy can we protect ourselves and advance our future.”

Wire Women Lighting It Up: What It’s Like to be a Female Union Electrician (Hard Ball Press), Sharon Syzmanski

It has been a long, hard struggle for women to gain access to the building trades, and still today women are less common on construction worksites than in the under-represented halls of Congress.  This book is addressed to young girls to inspire and inform them about the deep satisfactions and joys of bringing power and light to every aspect of our lives. Based on interviews with apprentices and journeyworkers, it explains the lengthy process of apprenticeship and the value and meaning of being in a union – in this case, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). Jane LaTour praises the book: “Pushing back against the invisibility caused by having so few women in these skilled blue-collar jobs is an on-going task, and, as their sisters did before them – the pioneers who first entered the IBEW in the late 1970s, this new generation of union sisters is also eager to spread the word, and to be role models who can inspire future generations of women electricians.”

Working-Class Utopias: A History of Cooperative Housing in New York City (Princeton U. Press), Robert Fogelson

Though not alone, New York City unions have been especially alive to decreasing workers’ everyday costs while at the same time increasing wages to pay those costs.  One of their most sweeping efforts was the development of cooperative housing after World War II, and this book chronicles that effort to “solve the city’s century-old problem of providing decent housing at a reasonable cost for working-class families.”  A consortium of unions, using political clout based on their members’ participation, eventually built large-scale cooperatives in every borough of the city except Staten Island, culminating in the massive development of Co-op City in the Bronx in the 1960s.  One reviewer calls it “deeply researched, offering a wealth of new material and original insights into a neglected aspect of New York City history, and surprisingly pertinent to current debates on the crisis of affordable housing.”

The Silence in the Sound (Koehler Books), Dianne C. Braley

Braley’s debut novel is the story of Georgette, a nurse, who—drawn by happy memories of a childhood trip–moves to Martha’s Vineyard for a new start. There she becomes a private nurse for a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and falls in love with Dock, an addict, and finds herself being drawn back into the entanglements of addiction she has spent so many years getting beyond. Novelist T. Elizabeth Bell writes: “In The Silence in the Sound, Dianne C. Braley weaves a gorgeous, heart-wrenching, and very real tale of love, secrets, and resilience. The engaging plot peels back the façade of wealthy, seemingly idyllic Martha’s Vineyard to expose the lives and struggles of the island’s year-round working-class locals – the nurses and carpenters who labor, mostly unappreciated, behind the scenes. Laced with love and gritty with addiction, The Silence in the Sound is a compelling, memorable read.”

Working 9 to 5: A Women’s Movement, a Labor Union, and the Iconic Movie (Chicago Review Press), Ellen Cassedy 

Ellen Cassedy is one of the founders of 9 to 5, the working women’s movement that mobilized for rights and respect on the job.  Few social movements accomplished as much or with as much flashy impact.  9 to 5 started with a group of clerical workers in Boston, grew as it migrated to other cities (sometimes in different forms), and eventually established its own union, Local 925 of the Service Employees International Union. It attracted attention with a variety of creative organizing efforts, including the now-classic Dolly Parton song and the movie starring Jane Fonda, Lilly Tomlin, and Dolly. With an insider’s view that sometimes included riding a hurricane, Cassedy provides a unique perspective.  The publisher promises “a lively, informative, firsthand account packed with practical organizing lore that will embolden anyone striving for fair treatment.”

Last Stand of the Louisiana Shrimpers (U. of Mississippi Press), Emma Christopher Lirette 

Ravaged by the largest oil spill at sea in American history, several traumatic hurricane seasons, and worst of all, an influx of shrimp from southeast Asia, Louisiana shrimp fishers find it more and more difficult to making a living doing work they love.  This book explores how shrimpers have responded: “Despite feeling trapped by finances and circumstances, they have created a world in which they have agency.”  According to the publisher, “With evocative, lyrical prose, [Emma Lirette] argues that in persisting to trawl in places that increasingly restrict their way of life, shrimpers build fragile, quietly defiant worlds, adapting to a constantly changing environment. In these flickering worlds, shrimpers reimagine what it means to work and what it means to make a living.”

Where Are the Workers? Labor’s Stories at Museums and Historic Sites (U. of Illinois Press), Robert Forrant and Mary Anne Trasciatti, editors.

Part of the University of Illinois Press’ “The Working Class in American History” series, this volume of essays is focused on “nationwide efforts to propel the history of labor and working people into mainstream narratives of US history.” The first part deals with how to collect and interpret worker history for a broad public.  The second part explores various writing and visual representation of labor history, including National Park sites and murals.  The publisher promises: “Together, the essayists explore how place-based labor history initiatives promote understanding of past struggles, create awareness of present challenges, and support efforts to build power, expand democracy, and achieve justice for working people.”

Manland (Nine Arches Press), Peter Raynard

Manland is a collection of poems examining masculinity and manhood within the experience of working-class life colored by mental health struggles and physical disability. Poet Fran Lock writes of this work that “Peter Raynard traverses the unstable terrain of working-class masculinity. His poems meet manhood in all of its banter and swagger; its persistent myths and dangerous silences. With his characteristic lyric verve, Raynard explores what it means to be a man, a father, a husband, and a son. The result is moving, candid, wise and tender, full of humour and hard-won insight.”

Purple Power: The History and Global Impact of SEIU (U. of Illinois Press), Luis Aguiar and Joseph McCartin, editors

Starting out as a union of apartment building janitors and expanding to more than two million members today, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) celebrated its 100th birthday last year with members in a variety of occupations in several different countries.  The three parts of this collection of essays first traces the history of the union; then provides in-depth studies of key campaigns in the US, including Justice for Janitors and Fight for $15; and finally details some of SEIU’s efforts to represent low-wage workers in Canada, Australia, Europe, and Brazil.  One reviewer says the book “brings together a wide range of perspectives that increase the level of insight into the SEIU and the broader issue of labor organizing for precarious workers. It also highlights the complexity of the SEIU and challenges commentators who unquestionably [either] praise the union’s role in the U.S. labor movement or dismiss it.”

Working in the Magic City: Moral Economy in Early Twentieth-Century Miami (U. of Illinois Press), Thomas Castillo

At the beginning of the 20th century, Miami was a small town isolated on the southern tip of Florida.  By 1920 it had increased its population some 15-fold, as it became a destination for affluent tourists in the 1920s and eventually for retirees from the North.  Thomas Castillo traces Miami’s development as a leisure mecca from the perspective of the workers, who endured low wages and hard conditions as the city glittered.  As the city’s developers fostered an ideology of class harmony, Castillo explores how class and race relations structured the nature of power in Miami.

Labor’s Outcasts: Migrant Farmworkers and Unions in North America, 1934-1966 (U. of Illinois Press), Andrew Hazelton

Defeats in labor organizing, as demoralizing and practically harmful as they are, often lay the groundwork for subsequent organizing victories.  Such is the case with the National Agricultural Workers Union (NAWU), which battled the Bracero guestworker system employed to exploit migrant farmworkers.  Andrew Hazelton argues: “Though the union’s organizing efforts failed, it nonetheless created effective strategies for pressuring growers and defending workers’ rights. These strategies contributed to the abandonment of the Bracero Program in 1964 and set the stage for victories by the United Farm Workers and other movements in the years to come.”

Stories from the Tenants Downstairs (Scribner) Sidik Fofana

Fofana’s debut collection of eight short stories focuses on the tenants of Banneker Terrace Apartments in Harlem—working-class people struggling to make ends meet in the face of gentrification. The various characters are brought to life in part through their individual accents and vernacular, their language and their words being used to tell their stories. From The Minneapolis Star Tribune: “Fofana deftly steers away from stereotypes and into the psychological interior of each character’s life. And he does this so powerfully through voice. Each story in the collection is a lesson in how language defines character — and, therefore, reality.”

Panama in Black: Afro-Caribbean World Making in the Twentieth Century (Duke U. Press), Kaysha Corinealdi 

This book shows how Afro-Caribbean Panamanians were central in creating an African diaspora that linked cities and towns like Colon, Kingston, Panama City, and Brooklyn.  Kaysha Corinealdi maps this century-long development by “examining the longest-running Black newspaper in Central America, the rise of civic associations created to counter policies that stripped Afro-Caribbean Panamanians of citizenship, the creation of scholarship-granting organizations that supported the education of Black students, and the emergence of national conferences and organizations that linked anti-imperialism and Black liberation.“ 

The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (Harvard U. Press), Vivek Chibber

This exercise in grand theory seeks to restore the primacy of materialist analysis – what Marx called “the dull compulsion of economic relations” – while incorporating what Vivek Chibber sees as the cultural turn’s “most useful insights.”  According to the publisher: “Chibber shows that it is possible to accommodate the main arguments from the cultural turn within a robust materialist framework: one can agree that the making of meaning plays an important role in social agency, while still recognizing the fundamental power of class structure and class formation.”

Drinking Guinness with the Dead (Spartan Press), Justin Hamm 

This poetry collection spans Hamm’s work from 2007-2021. Though not exclusively “Midwestern” poetry, a good portion of the book features small town, working-class Midwestern characters, exploring themes of masculinity, fatherhood, family, and memory.  In an interview, Hamm says: “The goal is to write honest literature that explores these themes from different perspectives.  I’ve been writing about the Midwest and its people for more than 15 years now. I want to show people that the region is one worth paying attention to.  People often refer to it as ‘flyover country,’ but there is so much drama, so much beauty, and so much life in the Midwest. It’s also a very complicated region full of different identities, beliefs, and conflicts. It’s worthy of its own literature.”

The People’s Hotel: Working for Justice in Argentina (Duke U. Press), Katherine Sobering

In 2001 as Argentina slumped into a massive economic recession, Buenos Aires’s Hotel Bauen closed its doors, putting its various hospitality workers out of their jobs.  Instead of leaving for long bouts of unemployment, the workers occupied the hotel, kept it open, and formed a workers cooperative that succeeded in keeping the iconic luxury hotel in business.  Katherine Sobering worked in the cooperative making beds, cleaning toilets and floors, and taking her turn at the reception desk as part of her research on how the cooperative hotel worked – “one where decisions were made democratically, jobs were rotated, and all members were paid equally.”  Reviewers have praised the book for the “many scholarly and political lessons packed in this extraordinary book” and for having much “to teach organizations and readers everywhere.”

Labor Power and Strategy (PM Press), John Womack Jr., edited by Peter Olney and Glenn Perusek

In this slender volume, labor historian and strategist John Womack “lays out a timely plan for identifying chokepoints and taking advantage of supply chain issues in order to seize and build labor power and solidarity.”  And then the merits of Womack’s strategy are debated by ten organizers and educators, including Bill Fletcher Jr., Jane McAlevey, and WCSA past president Jack Metzgar.  Larry Cohen, past president of the Communications Workers, summarizes the debate this way: “Womack, in a long initial interview and in the conclusion, argues that without organizing workplace choke points, we are left with spontaneous movements that come and go. Several of the organizers essentially argue that the spontaneous can become conscious and long-lasting. Grab the book and take up the debate.”

Joe Stafford (Needle Press), Charles Andrews

Joe Stafford is a city maintenance worker, maintaining traffic lights for the city of Preston, and the kind of leader who can organize other workers to fight injustice on the job.  His co-workers, however, persuade him that he can do even more for them if he enters management, and this works out well at first.  But then “popular unrest grows step by step until revolutionary days arrive,” and Joe Stafford has to decide which side he is on.  Jenny Farrell praises the novel for its “well-written dialogue,” “sense of the dramatic,” and its “range of characters who reflect the diversity of the working class.”

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