September 15, 2015
By Elizabeth R. Gottlieb
We Are One: Stories of Work, Life, and Love, by Elizabeth R. Gottlieb, is quilt-like in its design, each story woven into a pattern around the questions posed in the interview, with most of the threads in bright colors. Each individual sharing their experiences is a union member, and descriptions of the work that they do intersects with the ways that their union impacts their lives.
These are people we want to get to know. One of the strengths of the book lies in the range of occupations profiled, and the detailed explanations of what those jobs entail. We get an up-close look into the cockpit of planes and how pilots prepare for their flights and carry them out—the steps involved, the stresses, and the pride in performance. Through the words of an eloquent boilermaker in Montana, we gain access to the kind of workplace most of us will never enter. Through the testimony of these first-person witnesses, we learn what makes a routine job meaningful day after day—jobs such as school bus driver; a secondary school French teacher; an assembly-line Oreo cookie packer, a garment worker, a physician. One aspect of work that shines through many of the interviews is the strong sense of duty and the ways that individuals put themselves out for others—in unheralded acts of generosity—and how these acts provide meaning and an enlarged sense of purpose in their work lives, and in some instances, informs their definition of success.
Contained within the traditions of oral history, we usually learn about the selection of subjects and the process that informs the interviews. The author of We Are One doesn’t include this important information in her introduction. Another tradition of oral history is tailoring the questions to the subject and following where they might lead. It appears that the author used the same format with each subject: specific questions regarding a description of their work, their union involvement, their goals for retirement, and how each person defines success. Hence we are left in certain instances wanting more depth. For example, in the case of Joyce Bryant, the home health care attendant, she seems reticent about describing the details of her daily routines and we are left desiring more information from her about this occupation that increasingly employs large numbers of women who perform this intimate care-taking work.
While there are discrete references to problematic topics plaguing the labor movement, they stand out like outcroppings on a sunny landscape, isolated and without the ability to illuminate the current besieged state of the labor movement. Thomas Walker, a member of the Aurora, Colorado Fire Department, describes the issue of race and the local union leadership’s decision not to address a strategy of minority recruitment, leading to a rift, with black firefighters pulling out of the union. Walker mentions his work with the International union, and their efforts to address the critical issue of diversity on a national level. But this is a rare instance in the book where a critically significant problem is included in the narratives.
However, in our current national environment where trade unions are being “criminalized,” in the words of Bob Butler (a member of SAG-AFTRA and the National Association of Black Journalists), it is refreshing to read about unions as they work to improve the lives of their members and add a sense of purpose to those lives. Two exceptional interviews, with Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, and Roberta Reardon, founding co-president of SAG-AFTRA, give us in-depth profiles of the careers that led them to their positions of leadership and perspective on the challenges they face as union leaders. But there are many subjects who also provide vivid insights into the work that it takes to build a union and the ways in which representation by a collective bargaining unit stands as a bulwark against the myriad crippling strategies being leveled against the working-class, broadly defined. The voices captured in this book are well worth listening to, and, as we learn about their lives, we understand a few important things in a fresh way that we thought we already knew.
Review by Jane LaTour