Julia Senzon/Sun News Editor

Al Davidoff, author of "Unionizing the Ivory Tower," shared his experience building unions and organizing campus workers at Cornell.

August 21, 2023

Local Author Discusses Memoir Detailing Years of Cornell Employee Unionization

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As a part of the “Ithaca is Books” festival, publishing company PM Press hosted “Unionizing the Ivory Tower book talk with Al Davidoff and Ellen David Friedman” at Autumn Leaves Books on Aug. 10.

Al Davidoff ’80 was a Cornell student leader who became a full-time custodian for the University during his undergraduate years. Davidoff helped organize campus workers and create United Auto Workers Local 2300 — a union that represents over a thousand service and maintenance workers at the University — which he also became the president of.

“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 Sun. “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 non-governmental organization that focuses on improving worker rights globally. Throughout the fall semester, Davidoff will also teach Labor Relations, Law and History 4885: In The Shadow of the Tower: Building A Dynamic Local Union At Cornell.

The event was co-sponsored by the Cornell Society for the Humanities and the Ithaca Democratic Socialists of America. 

Held in Angry Mom Records, directly above the bookstore, the book talk included a read-aloud of a portion of the memoir and a question-and-answer session. The event became standing room only, even after more chairs were brought in. Ithaca DSA collected money from attendees to provide copies of the memoir to UAW Local 2300 members.

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 Cornell 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.”

According to Davidoff, bringing many dining workers to the meeting he arranged with management, rather than just having a few representatives present, pressured management to pay more attention to the cause. However, Davidoff noted that some employees’ strict push for more work distracted from what he saw as the university’s responsibility to provide unemployment insurance. In the end, about half of the workers that were going to be laid off for the summer were given jobs, which Davidoff called a partial victory.

Ellen David Friedman — who has worked as a union organizer for nearly 50 years, most recently focusing on K-12 and higher education labor movements — also spoke at the event. She was also an early reader of the memoir.

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 patience 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 Sun that he hopes this memoir can show people that they have the power to create organizations that fight for fair wages and benefits and that create equitable workplaces and communities.

“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, who is an active member of the Ithaca Teachers Association, described to The Sun 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,” Gutman said.

Julia Senzon is a reporter from the Cornell Daily Sun working on The Sun’s summer fellowship at The Ithaca Voice. A version of this story was originally published in The Ithaca Voice.