Your short takeaway should be that A History of America in 10 Strikes is a good book in all the ways a history book can be good. You should buy it. You should read it. You should gift it to your friends and family, and stuff extra copies in Tiny Libraries you come across.
The author Erik Loomis is a professor at the University of Rhode Island and regular contributor to the politics and culture blog “Lawyers, Guns, and Money”, and he’s been writing his “This Day In Labor History” series for some time. It’s not surprising that he was able to bring the same sort of conversational brevity to this full-length work as he managed on Twitter threads, but it’s impressive he was able to tie almost two centuries of history all together so coherently.
Now, Loomis has a point of view, and he states it outright and upfront: almost everyone in the United States is a worker, and labor unions have been the only force for workers in the past two centuries.
What’s enlightening is his thesis, hammered in time and again, that “the fate of labor unions largely rests on the ability to elect politicians that will allow them to succeed.”
He states this several times: “There is simply no evidence from American history that unions can succeed if the government and employers combine to crush them.”
“Having friends in the government, or at least not having enemies there, makes all the difference in the history of American workers.”
He says this in the beginning, he says it at the end, and he demonstrates it throughout, with the conclusion that the 1930s through the 1970s was an aberration of federal government non-hostility that ended when President Ronald Reagan definitely crushed the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization public union in 1981. “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” certainly is terrifying — when you’re a factory owner hearing Frances Perkins say that to workers on strike. That the influence of labor has waned while income and wealth inequality waxed is not a coincidence.
That conclusion is simple and the narrative never strays far from it, but Loomis manages to tell a compelling and enriching history of American society from the 1830s on to the present. In what may be the soft bigotry of low expectations, I was happily surprised by how seriously and fully he applied an intersectional lens to the history of labor and class struggle. But then, racism, misogyny, and homophobia are all class issues.
Often, the utility of an intersectional approach is framed in moral terms—which it is—but that’s also more than a bit patronizing. We shouldn’t re-examine the past in terms of how historically ignored groups like white women or black Americans shaped and were shaped by events just because it’s fair; rather, history doesn’t actually make sense without doing so.
Loomis first covers the striking Mill Girls of the 1830s, particularly in Lowell, Mass., in their efforts to work no more than 12 hours a day Monday through Friday and nine hours on Saturday. That’s right: one of the first labor struggles was to cut the workday down from 13.5 hours to 12, and “small business owners” fought like hell and claimed it’d bankrupt them back then, too.
What success the mill girls had was due to politicians viewing relatively privileged white women from outside the city as being unsuitable for gross exploitation and abuse. But, being unable to vote themselves or gain the alliance of those who could, they weren’t very successful. Another theme, appearing again and again in labor history, is how when labor divides against itself, it can’t succeed. The mill girls didn’t have the support of their male counterparts, so their leverage against their employers was undermined. Eventually, employers switched to immigrant men who both didn’t have any political clout and received no sympathy from those who did.
Most interesting, though, is Loomis including W.E.B. DuBois’s framing of the American Civil War as a general strike of the enslaved, or as Ira Berlin put it, “the slaves freed themselves”. Racism is economic history, and enslaved black Americans fatally undermined the slaver war effort by refusing to continue producing crops that could fund the government and feed its armies. They freed themselves by sabotaging the efforts of those slaver armies through strategic action and inaction.
In Loomis’s book, the general strike of enslaved people is the most important American labor action ever taken, but it also fits into his rule.
If the enslaved Americans had refused to do their work or voted with their feet en masse in 1845 or even 1860, the U.S. federal government would still have been under the control of slavers and combined with those who directly ran Southern slave labor camps in order to crush any widespread opposition, as they’d done in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, the Louisiana German Coast Rebellion in 1811, or Carolina Stono Rebellion of 1739. Those people of prior years were not less brave, they did not possess less agency, but it was only when there was a war and the enslaved were considered property who could be legitimately “captured” and utilized by an invading Union army against their enemy, that the self-freed were allowed to act against their oppression instead of being massacred.
“Massacre” is a word I thought about a lot reading A History of America in 10 Strikes because in U.S. hagiography, the Boston Massacre of 1770 is rightfully one of the central instigating incidents in the leadup to the American Revolution. Five people were killed, although we usually leave out that John Adams successfully got an acquittal for six of the eight British soldiers who fired on civilians.
As an effect of the Civil Rights Movement and greater inclusion, Crispus Attucks’s death has gained greater prominence. This is not a bad thing, but it’s certainly marginal, and in terms of the further-left’s criticisms of “neo-liberalism”, a place where the teeth of that criticism bites deepest.
Again and again, I was horrified by the number of times capitalist employers armed private security forces, or utilized already-bought-and-paid-for local law enforcement, or combined both with state militias, or co-opted federal troops to murder a half dozen, a score, a hundred men, women, and children — and that I’d never heard of before.
“The Boston Massacre” was savvy marketing, and the colonial revolutionaries who owned the newspapers had enough control of local governments to publish their version with impunity. The Redcoats were charged with a crime for shooting into a mob of fifty aggressive men.
In 1927, mostly white but immigrant laborers and their families didn’t have the ability to do any marketing with the Columbine Mine massacre, which also killed six people, probably because of machine gun fire.
In 1887, Southern whites murdered black Americans trying to unionize—not six but 60—in the Thibodeaux Massacre.
The Whiskey Rebellion usually makes it into high school history courses, but the Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia involved tens of thousands of people, the deaths of hundreds, and the cold-blooded murder of a police chief in a courthouse by a coal company’s private hitmen. If you asked a hundred people about it, you’d be surprised if any of them knew. President Warren G. Harding sent airplanes to bomb coal miners, and it’s like it never happened.
The best thing about Loomis’s work is that, for all the tragedies prior to the 1930s, there’s at least a sense of remove to it.
Those dark days are behind us, and now we have an eight-hour workday, and overtime pay, and the right to organize, and unemployment insurance.
But around 1950, things start to take a turn because you know you’ve gotten to the high-water mark of labor history. You know the venality, racism, misogyny, and even xenophobia of the unions will corrupt and eat themselves.
The rest of the book is just as important, but you read it falling downhill.
Preserving gains made in a few states will restrict its political power to a few states only, and the Senate being the Senate, those gains will retreat.
Even Cesar Chavez made a distinction between documented workers he could unionize against undocumented Mexican workers as the enemy.
So divided against themselves, how can it be any surprise that farm workers continue to be exploited?
We live in a new Lochner era on our Supreme Court, and it’s going to take a hell of a lot to dig us out of the second, just like it took the first.
I know it sounds nakedly partisan to argue that the best Republican is equivalent to the worst Democrat, but you aren’t just voting — and organizing, and canvassing, and endorsing — for an individual candidate, you’re supporting everything they’ll endorse, and go along with, and what they won’t oppose.
The Democratic Party isn’t a force for good in the world, and it never ought to be mistaken for one. But right now, it is a force for the least bad, for the occasional good, for the hesitancy to be awful.
The most obvious-in-retrospect thing Loomis accomplishes in his history is that whether it’s the Knights of Labor, AFL, CIO, or IWW, your tactics and your strategies matter a hell of a lot less than whether the people in charge of the levers of government are willing to use them to kill you, let you alone, or actively help you.
There’s nothing wrong with marches in the street, but if you’ve done your job well, you won’t even have to march. If you haven’t done it well enough, no amount of bodies or high-powered rifles will get you your rights.