August 2010

Mariya Strauss

Prole Art Threat

Tell Me About It!: Why Oral Histories about Working Are Sexy

"This was a company guy." Anyone who works for a living knows the type. If the company guy is your supervisor, you find a way to submit to his power or face vicious retaliation. The company guy sees it as his duty to keep his fellow employees in line. He’ll use any means at his disposal -- shaming, reporting you to management, power-trip stuff -- to keep you from enjoying the passage of time. He is such an asshole that he makes a great tool for the company to use to drive a wedge between employees and keep them subdued.

Now imagine you are a woman working in an all-male, blue collar environment in New York in the 1980s. An ironworker. An electrician. A firefighter. A construction worker. And you come up against a company guy, a guy who has the power to make your life a living hell indefinitely. And maybe the job is dangerous, or maybe you never got adequate training so you're stuck at a lower level than where you really should be after the years you've put in. And this company guy, he's your supervisor, and most of your co-workers wish you weren't there. They let you know this by putting a dildo in your cake on your birthday. Or by putting Hustler centerfolds on your locker. Or by teaching all the safety procedures inside the men's changing shanty.  

This is the grim scenery that fades gradually into crisp focus in Jane LaTour's Sisters in the Brotherhoods, a conscientiously researched oral history of the first women who organized for gender equality in New York City unions. What's startling about the book is the freshness of its narratives: the women remember everything that happened to them. They remember it like it was yesterday.

LaTour’s urgent voice breathes color into the old days of all-male and nearly-all-white telephone companies and fire departments. The legendary sexism and hostile conditions for women in blue-collar jobs I heard about as a feminist’s kid -- all true. My mother and her friends in the women's studies department in northern Illinois hadn't exaggerated the bad stuff. Women pushed through their own fear and the men’s hatred of them so more females could get jobs in the trades.

LaTour, who describes her process of writing the book as “quilting,” embroiders the events (legal actions, organizing drives, intra-union battles) that surrounded the women’s apprenticeships with the words of the women themselves. A journeyman plumber chillingly describes her first few months after completing her apprenticeship:

“I thought that after a certain period of time, they would all get used to me being around... they would have seen that I wanted to work and... that eventually, the harassment and/or hostility would decrease. But it increased.”

For his classic oral history Working, a towering monument to the act of working and the act of listening, Studs Terkel collaged full-text interviews loosely into industry-themed chapters. I’ve heard people calling for an updated version to be written, since it's populated with switchboard ladies, washroom attendants and other human anachronisms.

What's still shocking about it is the thoroughness of the project. Terkel wants to know about the boring details of a truck driver's toil. It’s crazy how fascinating those boring details actually are when you look at them. If you haven’t read Working, just go and get it. I found my copy piled atop a remainders display at Barnes & Noble. Noticing the details is artists' work. If Terkel is an expressionist, using the worker's own words to paint a somewhat romanticized mid-twentieth century population at work, then LaTour is more of a filmmaker -- a documentarian who uses her own voice in service of rendering the invisible visible.

LaTour must have written her book partly with a sense of optimism that change is still possible. When I taught adult literacy for an SEIU local in Boston that represented nursing home and hospital workers, we occasionally worked alongside educators from a group called Women in the Building Trades. Rare bird sightings in Dorchester and Jamaica Plain were more common for me than seeing women working on a construction site or on an electrical pole. WIBT's members were trying to change that, albeit with little success. Women have been organizing to infiltrate traditionally male-dominated trades for several decades now, but their numbers have increased at such a glacial rate that I laugh to keep from crying. LaTour emailed me a small coda to that WIBT story: "Progress is being made," she wrote.

Where Terkel gives us intensely personal, snapshots of a working person's life, LaTour covers a longer historical arc. Several decades passed as LaTour was doing interviews. People moved out of New York, switched careers, battled long illnesses.

I like to imagine I'm watching the action unfold on stage, where Working would begin as a spotlighted person telling her or his story, then another spotlighted person gets added and starts a story, and so on until the stage is crowded and glowing with light and mingled voices. Sisters in the Brotherhoods would be more of a traditional production, the spotlight following the moving targets of a few courageous women as they rise from their beds, put on their hard hats, and return to hell again and again and again.

The same question pulses at the heart of both books, though. Why do they -- why do we -- keep going back to work? The answer comes, in LaTour’s book, from stationary engineer Yvone Maitin: "I needed to make a living. I needed to be able to pay the bills." It's an uneasy pact, as everyone who goes to work knows. The sacrifices it demands from ordinary people sometimes -- or often, as Terkel might argue -- transform them into extraordinary people, and their stories make for a dramatic and pleasurable read.

Sisters in the Brotherhoods: Working Women Organizing for Equality in New York City by Jane LaTour
Palgrave MacMillan
ISBN: 978-0-230-61918-0
276 pages

Working by Studs Terkel
MJF Books/Fine Communications
ISBN: 978-1-56731-995-8
589 pages