(Book Review) A History of America in Ten Strikes

a history of america in 10 strikesA History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis uses the history of labor strikes in the United States as a lens to look at broader trends in American history. The ten strikes include the Lowell Mill Girls strike, The Eight-Hour-Day Strikes, The Anthracite Strike, The Bread and Roses Strike, The Flight Sit-Down Strike, The Oakland General Strike, and strikes among air traffic controllers, slaves, janitors, and more. Through tracking these strikes, Loomis follows U.S. history from the Industrial Revolution to contemporary America.

The central thesis of Loomis’s book is that the history of labor strikes in the United States offers important insights into other “critical parts” of our history:

We cannot fight against pro-capitalist mythology in American society if we do not know our shared history of class struggle. This book reconsiders American history from the perspective of class struggle not by erasing the other critical parts of our history–the politics, the social change, and the struggles around race and gender–but rather by demonstrating how the history of worker uprisings shines a light on these other issues. (5)

More specifically, he argues that strikes are important moments for reasserting the struggles Americans share in common:

Strikes are moments of tremendous power precisely because they raise the stakes, bringing private moments of poverty and workplace indignity into the public spotlight. And unless you are a millionaire boss, we are all workers, if we only realize that all of us–farmworkers and teachers, insurance agents and construction workers, graduate students and union staffers–face bad bosses, financial instability, and the desperate need for dignity and respect on the job. (6)

As Loomis wraps his history, he turns to the contemporary moment in U.S. politics, especially the role of the white working class in the 2016 election and the decline of labor unions. He argues for a reassertion of the role of the worker and presents something of a call to action for workers to demand better labor policy:

We need to reorient American history in order to make it pro-worker again. First, workers have to take control over their own destiny in order to give themselves power. No government is going to do anything for workers if workers do not demand it first. (224)

Maybe, like me, you didn’t get any history of labor in your K-12 education, or at least not much.  What I found really useful about this book is the way that Loomis connects the strikes to much broader movements in U.S. history. For example, when discussing slave revolts, Loomis also discusses the role of slavery in the economy, the end of slavery, and more contemporary protests such as Black Lives Matter. He also connects strikes such as The Oakland General Strike to the birth and eventual decline of the middle class in the United States. The result of these far-reaching connections is that while Loomis provides very specific histories of the strikes themselves, he also gives a thorough look at American history that makes a great refresher on various important time periods. This book is a dense read, but I think it is an important look at the role of labor in American history, maybe especially given the economic troubles and shifts in the labor market during our own time.

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