American history through the lens of labor

March 13, 2019

Eric Pelkey reviews a recent book about the way that key strikes have shaped U.S. history.

IN THE Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels famously claimed, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” For most American students, however, class struggle is rarely, if ever, mentioned in U.S. history courses.

This absence is not an oversight or an accident. To those in power, equipping the working class with an understanding of the rich history of American workers fighting for their own freedom and dignity is dangerous.

The safer approach for those who benefit from the status quo is to frame American history as the story of “great individuals” who shaped the country and benevolently bestowed rights and freedoms upon the masses.

But this view doesn’t provide people with the tools necessary to contextualize the recent spate of teachers’ strikes, for example, or know which tactics will best serve them in their own workplace struggles.

Lawrence textile strikers surrounded by Massachusetts militiamen
Lawrence textile strikers surrounded by Massachusetts militiamen

Erik Loomis’ excellent new book A History of America in Ten Strikes places the working class and the labor movement at the center of American history.

The book’s focus is on 10 landmark labor struggles, each of which represents a major turning point in U.S. history. In addition to providing detailed information about these struggles, Loomis situates each of these strikes in its historical context, explaining the conditions that gave rise to each and examining their impact on the labor movement and the nation as a whole.

LOOMIS REJECTS the impersonal, objective stance to which far too many studies of American history aspire.

Through the use of first-person plural pronouns, he unapologetically casts his lot with the workers: “Under a capitalist economy such as that of the United States, employers profit by working their employees as hard as they can for as many hours as possible and for as little pay as they can get away with. Their goal is to exploit us. Our lives reflect this reality.”

While A History of America in Ten Strikes aims to advocate for workers’ power and inspire current-day workers and labor activists to take collective action, Loomis goes to great lengths to avoid romanticizing unions and labor strikes.

For example, he delves into the racist and nativist ideology at the root of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) under the rule of Samuel Gompers in the late 19th century.

Unions that were unable to foster workers’ solidarity across racial and national lines played right into the hands of employers, who were able to utilize a divide-and-conquer strategy. As Loomis observes, this tried-and-true tactic still limits the power of the American working class in the Trump era.

All too often, conservative, autocratic union leaders like the AFL-CIO’s George Meany supported imperialist wars and attacked anyone espousing socialist politics.

In 1970, Peter Brennan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, orchestrated the Hard Hat Riot, where hundreds of unionized construction workers, armed with American flags, attacked and beat dozens of men with long hair suspected to be opposed to the Vietnam War. Not only did Brennan avoid any punishment for this action, he earned a position as Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Labor.

A year before the air traffic controllers confronted the Reagan administration’s union busting on a federal level, their union — the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) — endorsed Reagan in the 1980 presidential election.

Even populist, radical, left-wing labor unions made missteps and unforced errors that prevented them from capitalizing on individual victories.

In a fascinating chapter on the role of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the 1912 Bread and Roses strike of Lawrence, Massachusetts, Loomis points out certain tendencies within the IWW that limited its effectiveness in the long run.

At the start of 1912, Massachusetts passed a law which limited the number of hours women could work from 56 to 54. When women workers in the Lawrence textile mills discovered that their pay would be cut along with their hours, they went on strike. The IWW was instrumental in organizing the workers and supporting them in their struggle.

Because of the anarchist politics of the IWW, however, the union “refused to sign contracts with employers because it believed contracts limited worker action to incremental gains in a system that accepted capitalism,” Loomis says. This meant that most of the gains made as a result of the strike were eradicated in the long-term.

Also, the most skilled IWW leaders would move on to the next city or cause after a victory, not expanding and deepening the organizing in Lawrence to fight back against inevitable backlash.

Activist and orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn criticized the “infantile leftism” of some of the male IWW leaders, whose violent and intentionally inflammatory rhetoric made the organization an easy target for the employers, the media and the government.

THROUGHOUT THE book, Loomis examines the role of electoral politics and government in labor struggles.

For much of American history, the government and politicians have played an antagonistic role in the working class’ struggle for self-determination. Throughout the Gilded Age, powerful industrialists bought off the politicians and intimidated workers through the use of brutal private militias like the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. When the government would intervene in a strike or other labor action, it was almost always on behalf of the employer.

This would change, to some extent, in the early 20th century during the Progressive Era. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt got involved in a Pennsylvania miners’ strike led by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), attempting to negotiate a deal to end the strike.

When the mine owners flatly rejected his attempts, an enraged Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the industry and bring in the military to put the miners back to work. Roosevelt used J.P. Morgan, who was heavily invested in the Pennsylvanian mines, to put pressure on the mine owners and help mediate a deal.

At the same time, Loomis enumerates the limitations of such seemingly benevolent political intervention. He asserts:

[M]ost Progressives did not support union power. They feared it and wanted a slightly regulated capitalism to undermine radicalism...In the end, Progressives’ intervention in the workplace led to only limited improvements in workers’ lives, most of which came only in the aftermath of workers expressing power through strikes or dying in horrifying tragedies.

In his discussion of late-20th century labor unions, Loomis points out that the two-party system allows politicians to take union support for granted. The Democratic Party often gives lip service to protecting workers’ rights, but it can remain fairly confident that most labor unions will see it as the only game in town.

This has enabled Democratic politicians to support and advocate for disastrous trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has devastated some American workers and many more Mexican workers. In fact, Donald Trump cynically took advantage of U.S. workers’ opposition to these trade deals to win over some traditionally Democratic voters.

THE MOST recent of the strikes Loomis highlights in the book is the Service Employees International Union’s (SEIU) successful Justice for Janitors campaign. Loomis states: “Workers of color are the labor movement’s future.”

He contextualizes the SEIU’s ambitious organizing campaign by noting the harsh political conditions for unionized labor in the late 20th and early 21st century.

In 1983, 20.1 percent of workers in the United States were union members. As of 2017, that number had dropped to 10.7 percent. The decline in organized labor is due to a multitude of factors, including a Republican-led push to enact so-called “right-to-work” laws in several states, automation, a corporate-friendly Supreme Court, and the outsourcing of labor.

Despite these dismal conditions, SEIU has thrived by organizing and building solidarity across gender, racial and language differences. As Loomis explains, “SEIU hired large numbers of experienced Spanish-speaking organizers, many of whom had gotten their start with the United Farm Workers, to sign up and motivate the Latino workforce.”

It also focused on establishing a union foothold in major cities across the country, taking into account the needs and demands of each locale. Organizers and union members worked to build strong ties to their communities.

Therefore, in 1990, when police attacked and beat striking janitors in Los Angeles, public opinion decisively favored the strikers, not the police. These strategies have led to key victories in the janitors’ struggle: “By 2005, SEIU represented 70 percent of janitors in 23 or the nation’s 50 largest cities.”

A History of America in Ten Strikes is a perfect antidote to the popular textbooks and surveys of American history that frustratingly scrub U.S. history of class conflict and workers’ struggles.

Further Reading

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