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In Print: memoirs of a union soldier

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Suzan Erem had a lot of nightmares--both the literal and figurative kind--when she worked as a union rep and communications director for the Service Employees International Union Local 73 in the 1990s.

"The job is stressful," she says. The communications part was more or less nine to five, but representing hospital workers took its toll. "It takes up your whole life," says Erem, who divorced her husband, also an organizer, during her seven-year tenure at Local 73. "There were very few union staffers I knew who still had their first family--the one they may have come into the movement with."

Her new book, Labor Pains: Inside America's New Union Movement, details how that stress affected the lives of the organizers she worked with and, indirectly, those of the more than 20,000 janitors, hospital workers, toll collectors, and clerical workers they represented. She also documents behind-the-scenes grappling over racial and gender issues, as well as former Local 73 president Tom Balanoff's transformation from an idealistic progressive to an overweight cigar smoker partial to good suits.

"This is not some kind of kiss-and-tell book," she says, noting that her former boss is not happy with some of her portrayals. Her goal, she says, was to tell the story of the "invisible people with silent voices" she represented. "To do that I needed a framework, so I also had to tell the stories of the union staff. In the book, Tom ends up getting swallowed up by a structure that's much bigger than he is. I want people to see that even if you have the best intentions, it doesn't mean you're going to win."

Erem's interest in labor struggles began in her junior high civics class in upstate New York, where she learned about communism "with a small c." The former Community Party member recalls, "That's the first time I heard about the possibility there could be a society where everybody makes the same and has the same amount of everything. I thought that was a pretty neat idea." The point was driven home after a trip to Turkey, where her father was born, and where she saw "incredibly poor and incredibly wealthy people" living side by side.

She moved to Oak Park in 1991, after a yearlong stint organizing Latino janitors in New Jersey, where she first met Balanoff, then director of the SEIU's national building-services division. She started with Local 73 in 1993, the same year Balanoff took over there, but didn't start writing about her experiences until 1996. "After a few years I realized these were stories that needed to be told."

One of the book's most gripping chapters tells of a stubborn elderly hospital worker who was fired after refusing to reopen the loading dock ten minutes after it had closed. During months of unemployment negotiations, he fell so far behind financially and emotionally that Erem feared he would commit suicide. She never did find out his fate, but writes, "If I don't get a call from the worker, I assume no news is good news."

The issue of race constantly came to the forefront. "Tom intentionally [hired] a balance of races and cultures," she says. "But our local as an institution was dealing with [the issue of race] every day." Erem argues that the union's progress was slowed by unresolved racial issues. "These are generalizations," she says, "but my best guess is that white activists are motivated primarily by economics, while some African-Americans come into the trade movement as an opportunity to help their civil rights. The two races don't talk to each other about that. They don't put it on the table. If we could know what the person next to us is motivated by, it would help our solidarity. It could even give us more tools."

She left Local 73 last year, just before another major reorganization. (Balanoff now heads up Local 1, which represents building-service employees.) Several months later Erem moved to Iowa City, where she works as a freelance writer. Her next book is a self-help tome for women thinking about having children (she has an eight-year-old daughter) and promises to be much less controversial.

"I'm not trying to pass this book off as journalism," she says. "It is most certainly biased and most certainly limited by memory. It's one true rendition of what it's like to work in the labor movement and what people are struggling with."

Erem will read from Labor Pains Wednesday night at 7, when she moderates a panel called "Crossing the Racial Divide: Oak Park Authors Discuss Race in Our Community and at Work" at the Oak Park Library, 834 Lake in Oak Park (708-383-8200). Panelists include Stan West, Harriet Gillem Robinet, and William Adelman, and a book-launch party will follow. She'll give another reading next Thursday at 7:30 at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark (773-769-9299).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Deb Barber.

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