Book Review of Making Changes:
Women workers on a risky journey
By Rosemary Neidenberg
Patricia Hilliard’s first book, “One Pledge Unspoken,” transported the reader to the 1960s and a reliving of the struggle of small-town Midwest high school students against the Vietnam War. (Does anyone remember running leaflets on a mimeograph machine?)
“Making Changes” takes us to a large Cleveland insurance company office in the 1980s. The women workers, the supervisors, the bosses—they’re all here, so authentic in every detail. The personal lives of the workers, their problems, interests, life-plans, the way they think and dress and talk are real and recognizable.
Particularly familiar and poignant is the woman who collects figurines. She buys one every week. Do you know her? I do.
The mix of heritages found in every big-city workplace is there—newly arrived, as well as third-generation descendants—from Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, and women many generations out of Africa. Each cog in the American Empire Insurance Co. is a beautifully etched dimensional portrait.
The drudgery of the data-entry work, the drabness of the fluorescent-lit rows of computer-adorned desks—one shudders to envision it. But brightening the picture are the lunchtime, break-time, stealthy stolen moments from work-time, camaraderie of the workers, the confidences about personal problems, the kidding around, the mosaic of personalities to deal with and gossip about (particularly the bosses and supervisors). And there is the occasional delicious event when the workers get over on management.
Ellen Anderson, leader and instigator, is happy to get the data-entry job. She will be able to pay her rent and buy film for her camera. Spiritual kin to the high-school anti-war organizer in the 1960s, she rejoices in an exciting prospect. She is determined to organize a union.
Hilliard provides a step-by-step, nitty-gritty, hold-your-breath account of how the disparate, generous, flawed, gutsy, disregarded, underpaid women office workers embark on their risky journey.
Anyone who has been involved in union organizing will recognize and relive the moments of desperation, the moments of triumph, the strategy meetings to counter each move of the bosses, the feelings of deep disappointment when it looks like the workers will lose, the exhilaration when victory is in sight.
Do the workers win? Well, it cannot be imagined that Hilliard would write a book where the workers lose.
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Published Jun 23, 2005