ABOUT ON THE JOB
Union membership in America has been a tale of relentless, decades-long decline, as anti-union rhetoric and campaigns in business and government systematically dismantle workers’ rights. Too often, workers are afraid to take advantage of even the meager rights they do have. For over 60 million people, employment in America means inadequate wages, job insecurity, and unsafe jobs, all exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. But against these seemingly impossible odds, there’s a new workers’ movement sweeping the nation, bringing hope.
On the Job is the first account of a new kind of labor movement, one that is happening locally, quietly, and among our country’s most vulnerable – but essential – workers.
Noted public health expert Celeste Monforton and award-winning journalist Jane M. Von Bergen crisscrossed the country, speaking with workers of all backgrounds and uncovering the stories from 12 of these worker-led organizations. They are among the 200 worker centers in the United States that have successfully achieved higher wages, safer working conditions, and on-the-job dignity for their members.
On the Job describes ordinary people finding their voice and challenging power: from housekeepers in Chicago and Houston to poultry workers in St. Cloud, Minnesota and day laborers in Graton, California, as well as construction workers across the state of Texas. An inspiring book for these times, On the Job reveals that labor activism is actually alive and growing – and holds the key to a different future for all people.
"The inspiring story of worker centers that are cropping up across the country and leading the fight for today's workers."
“These are not your parents’ labor unions—an excellent introduction to a burgeoning and necessary movement.” Read more
– KIRKUS BOOK REVIEWS
“On the Job might be the most important book about work and organizing in years. Since the 1970s, newspapers have talked endlessly about the demise of unions, but these reports, as Celeste Monforton and Jane M. Von Bergen make clear in their graceful and eye-opening new book, are missing the real story. This small-scale organizing is perhaps the start of something really big, a new grassroots labor movement in the United States!"
– BRYANT SIMON, AUTHOR OF THE HAMLET FIRE, EVERYTHING BUT THE COFFEE, and BOARDWALK OF DREAMS
"The authors lucidly explain the issues facing low-wage workers, and vividly sketch the activists behind these campaigns. This timely and well-documented account offers hope for the future of the American labor movement.” Read more.
– PUBLISHERS WEEKLY
"On the Job is a series of powerful accounts that reassert the critical role that worker centers play in lifting the voices of our most vulnerable and essential workers. They have the opportunity to level the playing field, to give workers a better chance at a better life. Now, more than ever, it is essential these stories be heard and acted upon."
– CONGRESSWOMAN ROSA DeLAURO, D-CT, HOUSE APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE CHAIR, AUTHOR OF THE LEAST AMONG US
“"Readers interested in labor politics, labor relations, and related activism, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on labor, will glean much inspiration and insight into how workers have mobilized and advocated for higher wages, safer working conditions, and respect and dignity, even during the midst of a global pandemic.”
"Decades before COVID-19 exposed the health and safety concerns for essential workers, worker centers have quietly and tirelessly mobilized meatpackers, nannies, day laborers, and others in the hardest-to-reach industries to demand decent pay and working conditions. On the Job is a timely and necessary recounting of how these groups have catalyzed worker voice and agency, offering an inspiring account of the transformation that results when workers are empowered to serve as agents of change."
– BERNICE YEUNG, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST, PROPUBLICA, AND AUTHOR OF IN A DAY'S WORK
"I was predisposed to like On the Job, but I didn’t realize until I actually opened it for the first time how delightful it would be to read. Short chapters breeze by with tales of different workers and worker centers, containing just enough details and quotes to paint a vivid picture.... Monforton and Von Bergen have created an accessible book that’s both educational and enjoyable, and reading it is well worth your time." READ MORE
– LIZ BORKOWSKI, SENIOR RESEARCH SCIENTIST, MILKEN INSTITUTE SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH, THE GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY.
"Celeste Monforton and Jane M. Von Bergen’s new book is an excellent introduction to the complicated politics of worker centers. They are not a
panacea for rebuilding the union movement in America. But they are nevertheless a way for workers to have some level of voice on the job and in their lives." READ MORE
– ERIK LOOMIS, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF HISTORY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND. REVIEWING FOR NEW SOLUTIONS: A JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENAL AND OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH POLICY.
SAFE SPACE,OPEN HEARTS
Milagros Barreto, organizer, MassCOSH, comforts a member. I. George Bilyk
Outside a steady rain soaked the streets of East Boston, an immigrant neighborhood so new to gentrification that Spanish mercados have yet to give way to cafés selling lattes and craft beers.
On the windows of the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center’s Education & Training Institute, the rain coursed down the panes like tears. Inside, wearing a shirt that said, “No Bad Day in Aruba,” a woman was crying. Of course, East Boston isn’t Aruba.
And truthfully, Saturday wasn’t a bad day for the woman, either. In some ways, it was a relief. There, in a room filled with 15 immigrants, she could tell her story. Milagros Barreto, organizer for the Immigrant Worker Center, put her arms around the woman, offering comfort and Kleenex. No name for this woman. She was too ashamed.
At the moment, Barreto’s work wasn’t about job safety, or wage theft, or the economy, or any of the other important issues that draw people to trainings held by the Immigrant Worker Center, a project of the Massachusetts Coalition of Occupational Safety and Health, known as MassCOSH.
“This space opens her heart,” Barreto said. “It opens hearts and minds.”
On the agenda for the Immigrant Worker Center that day was a session of the center’s Leadership Institute.
To lead, knowledge matters, so on that rainy Saturday, the knowledge was in the form of economic training….
Authors Jane M. Von Bergen, left, and Celeste Monforton celebrate after completing their manuscript.
I’ll never forget J.T. Knuckles, a foundry worker from Saginaw, Michigan, who had to pause between sentences to catch his breath. Here was a proud man who relished the simple pleasures of life and always provided for his family. But yet, when I met him, he could barely cross the room without gasping for air.
There was no mystery about what happened to him. Too many years of breathing silica dust in a dirty, hot foundry. Too many years of working without the proper protection. Too many years of hoping he’d make it to retirement with his health intact. But, the deadly dust caught up with him and he developed advanced silicosis. J.T. died two years later at age 58.
At the time, I was working for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, but what I learned from J.T. Knuckles and his wife Oreta made a lifelong impression. Since then, everything I do and everything I’ve done centers on keeping people safe and healthy at work.
For the last 10 years, I’ve been collaborating with community organizations—many of them worker centers—to identify regulatory, administrative, and outreach initiatives aimed at improving working conditions for all people. It’s a matter of health equity, to ensure that marginalized workers—whether because of their race, ethnicity, immigration status, or the type of work they do—can stay safe on the job.
My career began with government positions where I had a front-row seat on the tactics used by employers and their trade associations to obstruct protections for workers. Often, with their allies in Congress, they inflated the projected costs of safety and health regulations, questioned the evidence of harm, and manufactured uncertainty about the health risks associated with occupational exposure to blood-borne pathogens, diesel exhaust, respirable silica, and other hazards.
Policy talk, legislative initiatives, reports, and studies give way when mining catastrophes occur. And when they do, people like me get appointed to find out what went wrong. It’s exasperating work.
In 2006, after 12 coal miners died from carbon monoxide while waiting to be rescued following the Sago mine incident, I served on an independent investigation team convened by then West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (now a U.S. Senator). After 29 men were killed at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch in 2010, I was brought in to probe the coal dust explosion that took their lives.
Both disasters were 100 percent preventable. All of those men would have gone home after their shifts had their employers followed mine safety rules.
Yes, I have a master’s degree and a doctorate in public health, but for me, it’s not enough to study worker safety. It’s important to talk about it – to help workers and policy makers understand the risks faced on the job and to help them take action to make things better.
That’s why, working with Dr. David Michaels, the epidemiologist who led the U.S. Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration, I co-authored eight papers that appeared in public health journals. That’s why, in conjunction with a public health colleague, Liz Borkowski, I started a public health blog called the Pump Handle. And that’s why for the last nine years, working with Borkowski and writer Kim Krisberg, I’ve been a partner in publishing a yearbook of the most notable activities and writings about U.S. worker health and safety. The 9th edition was was published in January 2021.
I have also testified four times before Congress and been interviewed by reporters from the Washington Post, National Public Radio, Associated Press and many others.
And truthfully, it’s also why our book, On the Job: The Untold Story of Worker Centers and the New Fight for Wages, Dignity and Health, means so much to me. For real change to be made in the world of occupational safety, workers have to take charge. They know the conditions and they know how to fix them.
In our book, Jane M. Von Bergen and I demonstrate over and over again how workers in collaboration can make their jobs, their families, and their communities safer and healthier.
Writing from San Marcos, the Mermaid Capital of Texas, where I live with my husband, Jim Steenhagen, and our dog, Bueller.
MORE FROM THE AUTHOR
Stories have power – I’ve always believed it. They teach us, change us, inspire us. As a lifelong journalist, I consider myself lucky to have had the privilege to hear and tell so many people’s stories.
Some of them won awards, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that people are heard and that their stories help others.
Stories have power, and they have also powered my life, as well as my career. Since fourth grade, when I stapled together the pages of our elementary school newspaper, I’ve been a journalist. There was my Girl Scout troop newspaper, junior high, senior high, and finally, college paper, where I was editor-in-chief of the Temple News, Temple University’s student-run daily.
Over the years I've covered everything from zoning board meetings to the latest updates from women’s clubs on the society pages. My beats, at newspapers large and small, sent me to horse tracks, courtrooms, factories, executive suites, rallies, crime scenes, theaters, and fires, while allowing me to meet swindlers, senators, billionaires, protestors, and people of all ages and beliefs.
Most of my career, 35 years of it, was spent at the Philadelphia Inquirer. For the last half of it, I primarily covered the workplace – unions, jobs, occupational health and safety, and the economy. While at the Inquirer, I co-founded the predecessor organization to what is now known as Resolve Philadelphia, a collaborative effort aimed at sharing journalism resources among competitors to tell powerful stories centered on a single topic.
Stories have power. We can talk about grand ideas, about movements of history, about the politics of change. But to truly gain an understanding, we have to start small – with one person, and maybe even smaller than that, with a detail that illuminates it all.
In our book, On the Job: The Untold Story of Worker Centers and the New Fight for Wages, Dignity, and Health, those kinds of details abound.
Who can’t imagine the exhaustion an undocumented Mexican dairy hand must feel working a four-hour shift milking cows, four hours off and then back again, with never a chance for a full eight hours’ rest? What about the poultry plant worker who walked off the job after he urinated in his pants. He was too embarrassed to return to work in a factory where he couldn’t get a break to use the restroom.
There are so many more: How could COVID contagion be prevented when underpaid textile workers in Los Angeles sleep in bunkbeds, crowded by the dozen into three-bedroom apartments? What happens when you swallow your pride to beg for work and then aren’t paid? How do you explain an empty refrigerator to your hungry children?
Their stories are daunting. But, in On the Job, they demonstrate strength and inspire hope.
Writing from Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, where I live with my husband, I. George Bilyk. We have two grown sons, Joey and Michael Bilyk.
MORE FROM THE AUTHOR
Philadelphia Inquirer: "A New Kind of Union: Worker Centers Adding Energy, Divers Voices to Labor Movement"
Chestnut Hill Local: "Mt. Airy author and labor expert 'On the Job' June 21"
I. George Bilyk, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, has specialized in capturing the images of all kinds of workers through photojournalism and event photography. After many years freelancing for United Press International, Bilyk went on to be a trusted partner with the New Jersey Education Association and many other clients, including the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.
Jason Cato worked with the Workers Defense Project from 2009 until 2019, where he served as the Director of Training and Education and as the Dallas Area Director. Cato, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Texas, was a scholar in residence at the ACLU of Texas, a board member of the Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, and a member of the steering committee of Austin Tan Cerca la Frontera. His photography has appeared in several Texas publications.
(SHOWN ON THE FRONT COVER)
Lourdes Ontivero has been a member of Workers Defense Project since it first opened in Dallas in 2012. Ontivero has played a pivotal role in helping build the membership base of the Workers Defense Project there and was part of the first Dallas cohort of WDP's Leadership Class as well as WDP's first Dallas-based OSHA-10 class.
WORKERS DEMAND A NEW NORMAL
By Celeste Monforton and Jane M. Von Bergen
THE NEW PRESS, MAR. 24, 2021
It’s normal, day laborers say, to repair a roof without the boss providing a safety harness. People don’t usually fall. It’s normal for restaurant workers to slip on wet floors when well-placed rubber mats would solve the problem. It’s normal to work for hours in the sun without a break in some shade. People don’t usually die from heat stroke.
That’s just the job. Normal.
One hundred and ten years ago, young immigrant women went to work in a shirtwaist factory in Lower Manhattan. For their bosses, it was a normal practice to lock exit doors to prevent theft, especially considering these women earlier had the audacity to try to unionize. Normal. After all, pilfering can’t be tolerated, nor can workers trying to claim their power.
But one hundred and ten years ago, on March 25, 1911, those “normal” locked doors at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. cost 145 of those workers their lives.
A dropped match ignited a fire. The women rushed to exits on the eighth and ninth floors to escape, but doors were locked. Desperate, some leapt from the factory’s windows. They fell to the streets below, bodies and clothes aflame.
And suddenly, in the streets of New York, what had been normal was no longer acceptable.
Tens of thousands- one in ten New Yorkers- gathered at a funeral protest for the young women who died. They were Italians, Jews, Russians, Irish. They were united and furious. They vowed, in passionate speeches, that workers would never again be treated so callously, locked in to die.
They promised a new normal.