A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis – Here are my seven lessons and takeaways

News item:
The Business Roundtable said Monday that it is changing its statement of “the purpose of a corporation.” No longer should decisions be based solely on whether they will yield higher profits for shareholders, the group said. Rather, corporate leaders should take into account “all stakeholders”—that is, employees, customers and society writ large.
David Benoit, Wall Street Journal, Aug. 19, 2019, Move Over, Shareholders: Top CEOs Say Companies Have Obligations to Society (Business Roundtable urges firms to take into account employees, customers and community)

And, from a key moment in Civil Rights history:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963


Look at the top quote above.  Notice the inclusion of employees in the group of stakeholders.  This is at the heart of a very long conflict: Do companies have any obligations to employees – to the “labor component” of a company?

history_of_america_in_ten_strikes_finalI presented my synopsis of A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis at the August Urban Engagement Book Club, sponsored by CitySquare.  It was what the title promised:  a history of America, told from the perspective of American labor, and the strikes that helped bring progress (or, failed to do so), on behalf of the worker.

Here is how I summarized  the key “point” of the book:
The owners of corporations are in business to make money.  As much money as possible. One way they do that is to get the most work – more and more work — out of the people they employ, at the lowest possible cost.  This has led to great abuse of workers, and great exploitation of workers. This book chronicles the efforts of the workers to make more, in better working conditions. It is not an easy struggle.

The stories are gripping.  Workers killed in mines. Workers killed in fires in garment factories. Workers killed in meat packing plants. Workers blamed for their own injuries and death: in other words, it was the workers’ fault/negligence, not the corporations’ fault for the unsafe working conditions…

The corporations were protected by private security forces, and by the actual law enforcement agencies.  The workers …were not very well protected at all.

This is a history of America worth reading!

I have presented plenty of books looking at factors in the success of well-known corporations.  This book reminds us to remember the workers – the workers that worked hard to being about such successes.

In my synopses, I always ask: Why is this book worth our time? Here are my three reason for this book:
#1 – This book provides a different take on the economic history of the United States. A take worth reading. 
#2 – This book provides a strong criticism of the dark side of capitalism. It is a thought-provoking critique. 
#3 – This book is a reminder that the struggles for equality, in every way, are real, and ongoing.

I share a number of my highlighted passages from the books I present. Here are the “best of” Randy’s highlighted passages from this book:

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 that reality.

During the 1970s, there were an average of 289 major strikes per year in the United States. By the 1990s, that fell to 35 per year. In 2003, there were only 13 major strikes.

There is simply no evidence from American history that unions can succeed if the government and employers combine to crush them.

This book focuses on ten major strikes in American history to tell the story of the United States through an emphasis on class and worker struggle.

They tell a story of a nation divided by race, gender, and national origin, as well as by class. They place work at the center of American history.

This book sees the struggles for the dignity of workers, the rights of people of color, and the need to fight racism, misogyny, and homophobia as part of the same struggle.

A better tomorrow is possible, but only if you demand it.

Throughout American history, foreign workers have entered the United States to escape economic desperation or political and religious oppression in their home countries.

…In the 1840s. Employers quickly learned they could import cheap, exploitable labor rather than improve working conditions for native-born laborers.

The courts consistently found in favor of the new corporations, claiming these businesses promoted “progress” in the justification for the courts’ decisions. This led to corporations with the right to pollute at will and timber companies with the right to destroy the stream banks that farmers owned, with courts backing up corporate domination of anyone who got in the way of their growth.

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated five days after the war ended by a southern sympathizer from Maryland, the Tennessean Andrew Johnson ascended to the Oval Office. A white supremacist replacing Lincoln is one of the greatest tragedies in American history.

By the 1890s, African Americans filled 90 percent of the unskilled positions in Birmingham’s rapidly growing steel industry, but whites forced them into the most dangerous, toxic workplaces with high death rates. That fact sums up much of postwar southern labor history.

Workers died by the hundreds in mine accidents, by the dozens in factory fires, and one at a time in meatpacking plants and sawmills.

Anyone trying to organize a movement today should take three lessons from the workers of the 1930s who made the modern union movement: First, a small group of people can accomplish amazing things. Second, you never know when a small movement will become a mass movement. Third, while protest movements can create mass action, they require legal changes to win. That means electing allies ot office.

More money and better working conditions could only happen with a union. That is what GM refused to grant and that is what the workers refused to live without.

If we are to win back our rights, we have to win in the political realm. …One of the major parties has to become the workers’ party in order for us to win our rights.

Having friends in government, or at least not having enemies there, makes all the difference in the history of American workers.

Here are a few points in the book that I emphasized:

  • A critique of capitalism:  Capitalism is an economic system developed to create private profits. …That has led to the income inequality that defines modern society.
  • From new unions to many unions to many union members to fewer union members. We are truly at a low point right now in Union membership As of 2017, only 10.7 percent of workers are union members. In 1983, when Phelps Dodge decided to crush its unions, that number stood at 20.1 percent.
  • Descriptions/definitions:
  • strike – one group withholds their work against one company
  • general strike – many groups against many companies
  • wildcat strike – an “unauthorized” strike – i.e., a strike by workers not voted on by/within the Union
  • scab workers – workers who work against the strike; they cross the picket line of the strike
  • what was (in the past):
  • child labor
  • many, many sex workers; constantly abused
  • 10; 12; 14 hour days
  • unsafe (very unsafe!) working conditions
  • inadequate pay; cuts to the already inadequate pay
  • company scrip; company housing; company store
  • brutal treatment of workers
  • worker group set against worker group (especially by: race; gender).
  • brutal, deadly treatment of others going on strike – by company “enforcers,” hired enforcers; even government agencies/law enforcement
  • lots of…deaths; murders; even lynchings…
  • do not underestimate the impact of: racism; gender bias; all bias…
  • first came slaves, and immigrants, then outsourcing, then contract workers, next???… – corporations will find ways to pay less for needed work. Full stop.
  • workers really need to: choose their labor leaders well; choose a political party, and help win elections

I always end my synopses with my lessons and takeaways. Here are my seven lessons and takeaways for this book:

#1 – The system of capitalism is set up to exploit workers. We need to recognize this reality.
#2 – Though there may be (rare!) exceptions, workers will not be protected, paid well, treated well by corporations “voluntarily.” Therefore, there must be robust, truly enforced government help on behalf of workers.
#3 – Workers have done best when there were strong unions PLUS government help.
#4 – Solidarity among all workers is essential to bring about workers progress for any workers.
#5 – A loss is no time for workers to give up hope. A loss requires even more organizing.  This is a long game!
#6 – A win by workers is not a signal to quit organizing. The next battle is coming for sure; probably faster than the workers realize. This is a long game!
#7 – Though this book only hints at it, things are only going to get worse because of the rise of automation.

The more I read — the more history I read — the more I realize that I don’t know enough.  This book is a tutorial on: worker abuse; slavery; racial tension and division.  It is a very good book to read.  I encourage you to read it. You will learn much!


Here is the table of contents of this book.  It lists the strikes highlighted.  At the end of the book, there is a comprehensive list of labor events in our nation’s history:

Introduction: Strikes and American History
• Lowell Mill Girls and the Development of American Capitalism
• Slaves on Strike
• The Eight-Hour-Day Strikes
• The Anthracite Strike and the Progressive State
• The Bread and Roses Strike
• The Flint Sit-Down Strike and the New Deal
• The Oakland General Strike and Cold War America
• Lordstown and Workers in a Rebellious Age
• Air Traffic Controllers and the New Assault on Unions
• Justice for Janitors and Immigrant Unionism
• Conclusion: Take Back Power
• Appendix:  150 Major Events in U.S. Labor History

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