We Are One: Stories of Work, Life, and Love
edited by Elizabeth Gottlieb (Hardball Press, 2015)
Book review by Marcia Newfield. Marcia recently retired from 30 years of adjunct teaching at BMCC/CUNY, and is Vice President emerita for the adjuncts at her union, the Professional Staff Congress. She is currently an adjunct grievance counselor.
If there ever comes a time when school children celebrate labor history, labor rights, and contemporary workers, Tim Sheard will have had something to do with it. After serving 43 years as a nurse, he retired to write six mystery novels featuring protagonist Lenny Moss, a hospital custodian shop steward. Then he established Hard Ball Press, a publishing company focused on works by and about working people. His intentionally very modestly priced list has expanded to novels, short stories, non-fiction, and books for children.
The most recent title, “We Are One: stories of work, life and love,” conceived and edited by Elizabeth Gottlieb, is intriguing. It consists of interviews with thirty-four union workers from a broad sampling of fields –iron worker, teacher, baseball player, line autoworker, airline pilot–who, in answering questions about the nature of their work, their engagement with their unions, their ideas about success, and their plans for retirement have created astonishingly personal first-personal narratives. The reader not only learns about the effect union involvement has had on their personal and work lives, but also the way they think and how their work has inspired them to think. Unless you are in the field, who knew a baseball player has to adjust to a longer season than any other sport with the attendant stresses, or the degree to which a pilot is committed to structure, or how a young dancer plans for a retirement that will probably have to begin when she is in her thirties?
Gottlieb, who grew up in a union environment, wanted to have a representative section of the people who make our lives work –practically as well as culturally. The selection cuts across age, race, and region. She chose her subjects them through a combination of brainstorming, contacts, recommendations, and serendipity, but her genius is how she translated phone interviews into people to whom the reader can connect. An added bonus are wonderful “selfies”–often with colleagues and family members.
Although all the workers speak of the positive changes union involvement made in their lives, their experiences were not without conflict, disappointment, and struggle, some of which were intrinsic to the nature of their work. A firefighter engineer technician took issue with his local’s poor treatment of blacks and resistance to the international union’s agenda and was caught between retaining his benefits and leaving. Frequent hardships entailed separations from family in order to travel for jobs, like the boilermaker in Montana who worked in thirty-seven states and whose son’s suicide was connected to feelings about his father’s frequent absences. Tom Tanner, now an ironworker local president, talks about his apprehension when leaving his reservation in Montana to take advantage of an apprenticeship in Chicago.
And then there are the battles and the strikes. Ben Bielski, a Kansas City retired postal worker, honors union president Moe Biller for the strike he called in New York in 1970. which locked up the entire system. “Nixon called out the National Guard, but they had no idea how anything worked. It was almost hilarious,” said Bielski. “In order to settle the thing, they revamped the entire service , gave a decent upgrade and changed the terms of the job. Nationally, it affected 900,000 workers.”
Another strike that had personal positive results was reported by independent filmmaker John Sayles, a member of four guilds, who says that two of his novels were written during a “nice long strike” with the Writers Guild. He notes that ” all the unions in the movie business are Balkanized and …all of our contracts come up at different times so there’s no chance for a mass industry strike.”
Most of the workers see their success in terms of helping others, supporting their families, and enabling their children to reach their goals. Danny Glover, the famed actor and child of postal workers, wrote the forward to We are One. “…. these folks open their hearts in a way as to make it impossible to not relate to them. The idea that they are all in unions is symbolic. We are all united in some way if you dig down deep enough.”
Give this book to a union advocate or a critic because it will bolster the former and possibly convert the latter. It also could be used as a textbook, motivating students to chart the variables and consistencies in different industries as well as the thread of worker consciousness.