Monday, October 6, 2014

Activist Week: On The Books

Greg Farrell's book On The Books (Microcosm) is an interesting departure for a cartoonist best known for autobio and humor material. Both of those elements are still present in this story about a labor dispute at The Strand, the famous New York bookstore, but they're muted in favor of bigger issues. On The Books presents a struggle that's a microcosm of larger labor and wage equality movements happening in the US, along with protest moments like Occupy. While Farrell does his best to provide the historical background regarding The Strand's ownership and its unionized workers, the book is more journal than cohesive narrative. Farrell admits this up front, noting that opinions he held earlier in the book don't necessarily carry over as time went on. By setting himself as an unreliable narrator with his own personal stake in the events of the book (Farrell is an employee of The Strand), he makes the complex, murky and shifting elements of the struggle easier to understand. Farrell himself is unsure of the right moves to make, making this less a polemic than an attempt to understand the conflict, its components and the issues at stake.

The primary issue at stake was renegotiating the union's benefits contract with the store. The Strand, citing worldwide publishing downturns, wanted to introduce fairly harsh cutbacks and a new wage tier such that new employees would make less money. The struggle that Farrell and his co-workers faced was not only a management that appeared to be negotiating in bad faith, but union representatives who seemed disinterested at times and all too eager to roll over to management. The book details a variety of protests, worker meetings, dissemination of literature designed to inflame and unite his fellow workers at the store. All of this sounds heavy, and it is: people's livelihoods depended on the vote, and the workers were not in agreement regarding what the proper course of action was. The naturally goofy Farrell balances all of the seriousness with an elastic, cartoony line that frequently drops in gags and silly jokes to counter the dryness of the narrative. This approach doesn't always work and isn't always necessary, as many of the story's details are fascinating in their own right. For example, he plays it more or less straight when he describes The Strand's policy of turning on sprinklers early in the morning as a way of dispersing the homeless. At times, though Farrell overdoes it on trying to lighten the mood.

That said, Farrell's narrative voice is also angry and engaged, yet tuned into the concerns of those with other points of view. Those with families who depended on that job were less willing or able to take the time to join strategy sessions. Then there were their allies from Occupy Wall Street, including those with fringe political agendas that had nothing to do with the Strand workers' concerns. There was anger reserved for management, who used strategies designed to pit worker against worker, as well as union leadership, who frequently seemed arrogant, out of touch and unwilling to really help their constituents. Farrell starts off the book as somewhat skeptical toward those emphasizing direct action and protest, but by the end, he's full throttle in favor of resistance. This ideological shift comes through the background of protests (including a memorable May Day shutdown protest that paralyzed the store for hours), tactical disagreements, groups growing and then fizzling and management's ever-more-disingenuous negotiating tactics. Farrell printed minis of what later wound up in the book, and even those comics caused some controversy.

This is an ambitious book that at times feels more like a solid first draft instead of a finished product. Farrell's line is shaky at some points, especially when he tries to draw dozens of different characters. It's admirable that he tried to capture the voices (many different from his) of so many different people, but he didn't quite have the chops to pull it off effectively. Balancing satire and simple lampooning was also tricky. A running gag of changing the Strand's sign outside the store (Old Rare New) to something topical ("Used--like our staff") was one of the funnier devices he used. Somewhat unrelated gags in dialog proved to be distracting. Despite the book's aesthetic shortcomings, it was still fascinating to see Farrell document this struggle in real time while trying to inform the reader as to who all of the major players on both sides were while still offering up his own point of view. It's a remarkable, raw and emotionally charged account of a labor dispute from an insider who wanted to own his own narrative of a historically important struggle.

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