As an active union member, and labor blogger, I have always enjoyed sharing the stories of unions winning an election or ratifying their first contract. I know that it is very hard to organize a worksite but it was not until I read “Playing Against The House” that I truly began to understand how hard organizing workers and winning a union election really is.
When I began my career, I was lucky enough to have a union there to represent me. The only choice I had to make was to join the union or not.
I never had to risk losing my job and falling into homelessness over my decision to join the union. I never understood the risks workers face as a union election approaches.
“Playing Against The House” is powerful and an amazingly well written book about the difficulties workers face when trying to organize their worksites and the fear workers face as their employer pushes back against their organizing efforts.
The book is a first person account of James Walsh’s experiences working in the service industry at two casinos in South Florida. The struggle to pay his bills, living off tips, the terrible shifts, all while working to build support for the union organizing drive.
After graduating from grad school, Walsh decided he wanted to write a book how unions organize workers. Walsh decided to become a union “salt”. A salt is a worker who helps to build support for the union from the inside of the company. In Walsh’s case he became a server at a couple of different casinos in the South Florida area.
Walsh worked with organizers from UNITE HERE to get a job at the casinos the union had a card check agreement with. As a salt, Walsh was there to build connections with other workers, to identify leaders who would be willing to stand up against their employer, and to encourage more workers to support the union.
I was riveted by the story. I literally could not put the book down. I began to feel the anxiety as the organizers began collecting signature cards. I felt angry when workers were fired for supporting the union, knowing full well that it was an illegal termination. I was inspired as workers held demonstrations and were arrested in support of their fellow workers wrongful terminations.
Throughout the book, Walsh highlights the strong anti-union, anti-worker corporate agenda as the casino bosses skirt the edges of illegal union busting activities. Walsh provided detailed accounts of the tactics used by his employer as they work to squash organizing drives.
To truly comprehend the hard work and dedication it takes to win an organizing drive, this book is an absolute must read.
(Below are a few other quotes praising Walsh’s work.)
PLAYING AGAINST THE HOUSE:
The Dramatic World of an Undercover Union Organizer
By James D. Walsh
“[Walsh] does an engagingly readable job of humanizing the labor battle, showing just how much power the corporations wield.” —Kirkus Reviews
“The degree of commitment shown by this young author is stunning. James Walsh used his two years in low wage jobs to help bring a union fight to casino owners and, now, an original, first-hand account to readers. It’s an up-close, empathetic portrait of the working poor, in particular the bravest among them, and what happens when idealism meets the sausage-making of union organizing.” —Ted Conover, author of Rolling Nowhere and Newjack: Guardian Sing Sing
“James Walsh’s Playing Against the House is a brilliantly conceived and executed undercover exposé about union rights at casinos. Set in South Florida, the narrative is full of compassion for the hard-working poor. Every page sizzles. This is New Journalism at its finest.” —Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite
Meet James Walsh
March 7 * Half King Reading Series * New York, NY
April 3 * Politics & Prose * Washington, DC