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Book Review 307: Unseen America

January 26, 2014 - Harry Eagar
UNSEEN AMERICA: Photos and Stories by Workers, edited by Esther Cohen. 201 pages. Regan

There are plenty of rightwingers who are incapable of saying the word union without making it come out “union thug,” although it is a fact of our history that employer thuggery has overbalanced union violence by at least 100 to 1. But when did you last hear a rightwinger complain about employer thugs? Never, right?

There is an entire political party devoted to demonizing the First Amendment right of assembly if it is workers who are assembling. For more than half of our history, assemblies of workers were actually made illegal in most of the country.

Regrettably, the resources devoted to countering this hateful campaign are small. Anyone wanting to see workers as they see themselves will be abundantly repaid by looking through “Unseen America,” a project of the settlement house Bread & Roses, which takes its name from a 1916 strike where the organizers campaigned for more than just wages.

Personal dignity, of course, is a big one, and it is a deliberate tactic of right-to-work thugs to deny dignity to workers.

Bread & Roses gave cameras to workers (many, in the case of this volume, members of the Service Employees International Union and thus many of them immigrants) to shoot what interested them. In many cases, that was other workers.

The “stories” of the subtitle are all very short, just a sentence or two, but often affecting.

A recurring theme is a quest for dignity and acceptance. Something they are unlikely ever to receive from Republicans, still less from Tea Partiers.

I recommend a look at the picture on pages 18-19, taken by Catalina Crisotomo of the Damayan (Filipino) Migrant Workers Association in New York City and captioned “Holding Grandma.”

Her story is brief: “That’s my friend, taking care of an old lady. I was touched by their relationship. You can really feel the love. It’s not just because of the money that you work.”

Then ask yourself: If that was your grandma, would you rather leave her with an SEIU member or a Tea Partier?


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