NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, December 2nd, 2018

Book Review: In “10 Strikes”, historian Erik Loomis demonstrates how American labor’s fortunes are inseparable from U.S. politics

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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  1. […] And a nice review here from the UE, one of the most demo­c­ra­t­ic unions in the coun­try. And anoth­er from The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate. […]

    Ping from Last-Minute Holiday Gifts! - Lawyers, Guns & Money :: December 19th, 2018 at 1:40 PM