A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis

12 Dec

Labor history is rarely covered in great detail in high schools, which is a shame because the story of how workers gained the right to unionize, an eight-hour day, and a minimum wage is as riveting as any other piece of American history. Many people think that these labor reforms were gifted to workers by the generosity of progressive presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but in A History of America in Ten Strikes, Loomis shows that it was workers who won these gains themselves by striking against abusive employers and the government, often when the odds were not in their favor.

For most of our existence as a country, work for the average person was bleak and brutal. Loomis writes about how starvation wages, gruesome workplace accidents and deaths, and violent repression of pro-union organizers was common. Conditions were so abysmal in the cotton and textile mills of Lawrence, Massachusetts that the life expectancy of a worker in the city was just forty years old. Over 100 garment workers burned to death in the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City during a time when it was common for factory owners to lock their employees inside the workplace. Mining companies would pay their employees in a type of currency called “scrip” that could only be used at company stores that would greatly inflate their prices.

The only tool workers had to fight back against these inhumane conditions was to go on strike. At the General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan in 1936 – 1937, workers locked themselves inside while police shot tear gas through windows and management tried to freeze them out by turning off the heat. Workers from various industries shut down business in Oakland in 1946 in a city-wide general strike. Air traffic controllers unsuccessfully tried to stop international air travel when they walked off the job under President Ronald Reagan. Labor heroes such as Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood, and Lucy Parsons all make appearances in Loomis’s history, but it is the striking workers themselves who take center stage in his history.

Loomis writes in an easily digestible narrative style that is never dull. His retelling of America’s labor history is both inspiring by highlighting the courage of average working people, but also tragic by showing inability of many of these same workers to look past the racism and xenophobia that was so deeply ingrained. Loomis’s book is as much about race as it is about class and how racism in America’s history has contributed to the weaknesses of many working class movements. Anyone who has enjoyed Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States will definitely enjoy Loomis’s book.

You can borrow A History of America in Ten Strikes from Hoopla as an ebook.  A People’s History of the United States is available as abridged and unabridged audiobook on Hoopla and as an ebook from eBCCLS.

You can stream a variety of documentaries about this topic on Kanopy including Triangle Fire: A Deadly Factory Accident in New York (Part of the PBS Series: American Experience). Our long time readers may remember our previous posts about the Alice Hoffman novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things which involved the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Written By:
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

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