"A History of America" in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis | The New Press | Hardcover | 5 1/2 x 8 1/4 , 320 pages | ISBN: 978-1-62097-161-1

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.

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