ITHACA, N.Y.—On Thursday, Aug. 10, PM Press/Autumn Leaves hosted “Unionizing the Ivory Tower book talk with Al Davidoff and Ellen David Friedman” as a part of the “Ithaca is Books” festival.
Al Davidoff was a Cornell student leader in the class of 1980 who became a full-time Cornell custodian during his undergraduate years at the university. Davidoff helped organize campus workers and create the United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2300, which he also led as president, representing thousands of service and maintenance workers at the university and beyond.
Unionizing the Ivory Tower: Cornell Workers’ Fifteen-Year Fight for Justice and a Living Wage is Davidoff’s memoir in which he recounts 15 years of building the union at Cornell and fighting for livable wages and equality. The memoir was officially released on Tuesday, Aug. 15, with Autumn Leaves exclusively selling copies in-store before the release date.
“It’s a story of [how] in a very hierarchical institution, how the people — often who are invisible or considered at the bottom of that hierarchy — really took on the university’s practices and changed the way they were treated by organizing successfully,” Davidoff said in a pre-event interview with The Ithaca Voice. “And so it’s a real David and Goliath struggle.”
Davidoff currently serves as the director of organizational and leadership development at the Solidarity Center, a workers’ rights organization associated with the AFL-CIO. Throughout the fall semester, Davidoff will teach the course In The Shadow of the Tower: Building A Dynamic Local Union At Cornell.
The event series was organized by PM Press and co-sponsored by the Cornell Society for the Humanities and the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and included a read-aloud of a portion of the memoir and a question-and-answer session.
The book talk was held in Angry Mom Records, directly above the bookstore, and became standing room only even after more chairs were brought in. At the event, Ithaca DSA collected money to provide copies of the memoir to United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2300 members.
Ellen David Friedman, who also spoke at the event, has worked as a union organizer for nearly 50 years, most recently focusing on K-12 and higher education labor movements. She was also an early reader of the memoir.
Davidoff read aloud a section of the memoir that recounts a confrontation between approximately 60 dining workers and management regarding the periodic temporary layoffs of many Cornell employees, generally over university breaks. That summer, there would be double the usual number of layoffs, aggravating an already pressing issue.
“Workers, coming off shifts, in sweaty uniforms, smelling of grease and food, were standing shoulder to shoulder, hovering behind and looming over their bosses,” Davidoff read from the memoir. “Management could not have gotten out if they wanted to.”
While the situation resulted in what he called a “partial victory,” Davidoff used the story to illustrate the power workers can wield when organized together.
Throughout the question and answer portion, Davidoff and David Friedman answered several inquiries regarding how to effectively unionize a workplace. Davidoff described the importance of remaining patient while fighting for better working conditions and cultivating personal connections between coworkers. David Friedman talked about finding shared frustrations among individuals with different backgrounds and beliefs and convincing workers that they have the power to create change.
“The question in organizing is almost always, how do you turn fear into a sense of power?” David Friedman said.
Davidoff told The Ithaca Voice he hopes sharing the memoir will show people how to use their voices to create organizations that fight not only for wages and benefits but also for an equitable workplace and community.
“I think this is a moment, historically, where certain basic premises of our country have been stripped away — premises about a free press, about democracy, about women’s rights, even notions of violence as a means to an end. And there’s this polarity between that darkness that we’re facing and a surge of activism,” Davidoff said. “And I think only a strong labor movement can, at the center of all of those other critical activities, be enough to really fight back against this darkness.”
Event attendee Carol Cedarholm, an active member of the Ithaca Teachers Association, described to The Ithaca Voice that she appreciated the educational element of the talk.
“I really liked hearing Al give examples, techniques [and] actions that they did that really brought about concrete change,” Cedarholm said. “That’s very inspiring.”
Isaiah Gutman, an Ithaca resident who has been involved in local union movements and is now an organizer with the Union of Grinnell Student Dining Workers, came to the book talk to learn more about unionization, especially at higher education institutes. Gutman noted that it was empowering to see such a high turnout that represented several local communities, including attendees from Cornell University, the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America and Autumn Leaves.
“Tonight, it felt like I was part of a movement — not just someone who thought something and was going to do something because of that — but someone who was really part of something bigger, part of a community that is going somewhere, not just a community that is sort of reactant to the events of the world.”
Correction: The original version of this article stated that the Solidarity Center is part of Cornell’s ILR School. This error has been corrected.
Julia Senzon is a reporter from The Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Voice.