Archive | Karl Schwartz RSS feed for this section

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

How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley

7 Nov

As the child of Holocaust survivors, Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley grew up with an interest in how functioning democracies could turn toward fascism. While many students have held on to the post-World War II consensus that fascism was defeated and relegated to the history books, Stanley wrote How Fascism Works in response to the rise of fascist movements around the globe over the past several years. Using a blend of history, economics, psychology, and sociology, Stanley explains in a clear and concise terms how fascism is able to take hold of a society and why people living in democracies should be concerned about it. This is an important piece of scholarship for anyone with an interest in how we got to the point where we currently are in world history.

Stanley begins by acknowledging that “fascism” is an often over and imprecisely used term, but that there are tactics that are similar between fascist states such as the use of propaganda, the creation of a mythical past, extreme nationalism, and calls for “law and order.” From the Armenian Genocide to the rise of authoritarian figures like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Viktor Orban in Hungary, fascist regimes use economic crises to foment hatred by the majority against the minority. Fascism works when different racial, religious, and social groups are unable to build solidarity with each other and are instead divided and isolated from each other. That is why Labor unions, where workers of different backgrounds are most like to come together to support common goals, are often the most fiercely attacked under fascist regimes.

Stanley’s book may seem bleak, but understanding the conditions under which fascism arises can also feel empowering by providing the reader with the tools necessary to navigate the global politics of today. What I enjoyed most about Stanley’s book is how his writing remains accessible when explaining a topic that is incredibly complex and volatile. Stanley is also hesitant to make any conclusions about whether contemporary societies should be considered fascist or not. Rather, his strength lies in explaining fascist tactics that are being used in even the healthiest of democracies. By adding this level of nuance, Stanley creates a work that is more compelling and expansive than it would have been if he had only analyzed the fascist states of Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy that most American students are familiar with.

Written by
Karl Schwartz
Young Adult Librarian

%d bloggers like this: