Wonkette Book Club: Union Maids, Slavery, And Wild-Eyed Radicals
Break out your Woody Guthrie music, kids (or your Billy Bragg, maybe), because it's time to talk about the history of labor in America and the weird relationship we have with work. Americans love to extol the idea of hard work, but many of us hate our jobs, and the Right has done an astonishingly good job of skewing the national discourse in favor of employers, those merciful job creators who must be appeased lest they pick up and move to China -- so be quiet and accept your crumbs. Historian Erik Loomis looks at how the hell we got here in his 2018 book A History of America in Ten Strikes (oh look, a linky to get it with a nice kickback for Yr Wonkette!). Loomis also offers some strategies for revitalizing labor in this country. It's a telling of American history from an angle we don't see often enough, and which is usually overlooked in the sanitized version of history found in too many schools, unless you had a flaming radical like my high school history teacher, Jack Wallace, Crom bless him.
We're going to discuss the book in three chunks; this week, we'll dive into the introduction and first three chapters (your reading assignments for the rest of the book are at the end of this post). And don't worry if you haven't read the book yet; we'll fill you in as we go along. (You still have until Tuesday to enter a drawing for one of 20 free copies of Ten Strikes at Goodreads, so hey, go enter!) Let's jump right in!
Introduction: Yipes, This Freaking Country!
OK, that's not actually Loomis's subtitle. But it could be. Loomis starts out by noting the renewed activism of pissed off, overworked teachers, who went on strike all over the country in 2018, starting in West Virginia, even without the overt support of their unions. Facebook is the new labor organizer. And West Virginia parents liked their kids' teachers and saw what terrible shape the schools are in, so they were sympathetic. And because the teachers made it clear this was about far more than just their own paychecks, the strike won a small pay increase and a commitment to fix the state's broken public sector health insurance system. The history of labor in the USA has been, as Loomis puts it, a fight to "take back our time and our dignity from our employer[s]."
Loomis isn't afraid to talk class struggle, even if that sounds dangerously radical and subversive to the average American, which is no coincidence. His book looks at individual strikes and the issues they were about, but above all, it looks at capitalism as it's worked out in America. It's not a pretty picture, for the most part.
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. Many of us don't enjoy our work. We don't get paid enough. We have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet if we have a job at all. Our bosses treat us like garbage and we don't feel like there is anything we can do about it.
And yet, schools generally don't give more than minimal attention to labor history, because it's so darned inconvenient and not terribly cheerful. Also because some parents and the local talk radio show complain plenty already about those damned teachers' unions. This reflects a broader official discomfort with labor, including the creation of Labor Day as a defanged national holiday intended to downplay the more commie-tainted May Day.
Says Loomis, "That erasure of workers from our collective sense of ourselves as Americans is a political act." And so here is Erik Loomis with a corrective to fight back against pervasive myths about our economy and how it works, particularly the notion that giving the wise good billionaire class whatever it wants is the secret to prosperity for all.
To unpack that mythology, we need a clear-eyed view of the history of resistance to the employer class. Loomis sees "two interlocking necesities for workers to succeed" in winning their rights. The first is seemingly obvious: Workers have to be able to organize collectively, which sounds simple enough but is complicated not only by outside efforts to prevent it, but by other American obsessions, chiefly race and gender (Loomis cautions against romanticism, noting that plenty of strikes were aimed at keeping out nonwhite workers or immigrant laborers -- rivalries between competing unions have also diminished solidarity)
The other factor necessary for strikes to work at all is even thornier: labor action won't get anywhere when government is on the side of the bosses, which has been the case for most of American history. Some of the most outrageous moments in labor history involve government collusion with employers against workers, no matter how unfairly the workers were treated. Government has rarely even been neutral in labor issues, let alone on the sides of the workers. This is not a cause for great optimism, but it is reason for political action, and the answer to anyone who wonders why labor unions bother with politics. They're the only institutions that do stand with workers.
And then there's the system of capitalism itself, and the question of whether it really can be made to work for everyone. Loomis doesn't shy away from big questions here:
We should be debating what the future of American and global capitalism looks like, or whether we should replace it entirely. I argue that at the very least we can use the government to create equitable laws and regulations to ensure that everyone lives a dignified life under a broadly capitalist economy.
That can only happen, he says, if workers firmly reject the "fundamentalist capitalist propaganda" of the Ayn Rand / Fox News variety.
So now that I've spent most of this review talking up the intro, I suppose we should finally discuss the chapters, huh?
The Lowell Mill Girls
We like the structure of this book. Each chapter focuses on a single strike (or related series of strikes) but places it in the larger context of labor and political developments at the time. So while Chapter One is nominally about labor actions in the textile mills of Lowell, Massachussetts, in the 1830s-50s, Loomis situates the strikes within the larger Industrial Revolution and the politics of early America.
One of the surprises in this chapter: the mills in Lowell were intended, at least at first, as America's answer to the "dark Satanic mills" of the English system. The initial pool of employees were young women from respectable families, who were housed in company-owned boarding houses and signed up for short terms of employment so they could return to their families, get married, and become mommies. It was supposed to be a model of work as benevolent social improvement, profitable for all:
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other writers gave talks to the workers. The Mill Girls produced their own magazines, took classes, and, in the eyes of the factory owners, prepared themselves nicely for marriage while producing profit for their employer. The town's founders hoped they'd created a model for labor in the industrializing age.
That didn't last long at all, as hours got longer, profits or the owners higher, and conditions worse and worse. More money to be made that way. The young ladies turned to organizing to improve their work conditions as a more immediate form of self-improvement, and the mills' literary magazines fell by the wayside. in 1836, the mills were doing well, but the owners raised the fees for the workers' boardinghouses, causing a net pay cut of a dollar a week, and the women walked out. Two mills eventually gave in and reversed the higher rents.
Later strikes arose as workers demanded a ten-hour workday (down from twelve hour shifts, or longer). Things were complicated by the arrival of Irish and Welsh immigrants, who were desperate enough to take the lower wages and crappy conditions (gee, does this sound familiar?) We meet an early labor hero, 28-yer-old Sarah Bagley, who founded the Lowell Female Labor Reform Association in 1844 and led a campaign to push the state legislature for a 10-hour day law. The law failed, but not before the canny mill workers testified in the Mass lege that a shorter workday would allow women to be better wives and mothers, and Bagley herself argued that working on Sunday "undermined women's morality because they could not go to church."
In larger labor issues, Loomis notes a disastrous 1842 court decision, Farwell v. Boston and Worcester Railroad Corporation, which set a longstanding anti-labor precedent: if you agree to work, then you've agreed to accept all the risks of your employment.. So if a rail car crushes your arm, hey, you signed up for that, even if the coupler was badly designed or defective, sorry. Farwell was just one of many cases in which the law stood with employers, leaving them immune to lawsuits over safety for much of the 19th century.
This chapter also discusses the idea of "free labor," the notion that
workers would direct themselves in productive labor that created economic and therefore political independence, allowing white males to govern the nation as a collective body with similar interests.
That ideology of free labor was one of the reasons some Northern whites opposed slavery: not out of any moral outrage on the behalf of the enslaved, but because it undercut the power of white workers in the North to compete.
As one Iowa Republican stated, "Slavery is a foul political curse upon the institutions of our country; it is a curse upon the poor, free, laboring white man."
Of course, enslaved black people had some thoughts about that, too
Slaves On Strike
Chapter Two includes one of Loomis's more provocative ideas, although as he acknowledges, it's not original to him. It's actually straight out of the writings of W.E.B. DuBois. In addition to being morally evil and a total denial of enslaved people's humanity, this chapter argues, slavery is "fundamentally a labor system," forcing people to work without any say in the matter. So how's this for an intriguing angle?
The biggest labor strike in American history took place during the Civil War, when slaves simply stopped working for their owners at the first opportunity. They did not wait for Abraham Lincoln to free them. Rather, they took their lives in their own hands through withholding their labor from their masters, fleeing to Union lines, and forcing Lincoln and the North to recognize the new reality of their lives.
This is such an incredible chapter, looking at how enslaved African-Americans took control over their own lives by walking away from the plantation system. Hell, even some Union generals took the perverse notion of slaves as "property" and turned it on its head -- for the sake of the war effort, but that also worked out for the blacks who'd freed themselves. Gen. Benjamin Butler declared eight escaped slaves who reached Fort Monroe in Virginia to be "contraband" of war, "property" seized by the Union, and Butler put them to work at the fort. This encouraged more blacks to free themselves and head toward Union lines -- a "strike in the form of self-emancipation."
In essence, enslaved blacks, whenever they could, literally seized control of the means of production -- themselves -- and denied their work to the masters and the Confederate economy. DuBois pointed that out in his 1935 book, Black Reconstruction in America:
It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people. They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations.
This is some really good stuff! Also fun: the cluelessness of the Southern planters, who seemed genuinely surprised by work slowdowns and slaves' puzzling desire to run to Union lines.
Loomis continues his labor-based discussion into Reconstruction, noting that the imposition of "black codes" and sharecropping were both a reassertion of white dominance and exploitation and a means of controlling black lives through the conditions of labor. In the case of Southern "vagrancy" laws, black men who didn't work for whites could literally be seized and forced to work under contract, with the state getting a cut of their wages. Jesus. (Will Loomis continue that analysis in later chapters, addressing the Great Migration as a labor movement? We'll see -- I actually haven't gotten that far ahead.)
The Eight Hour-Day-Strikes
Well, damn it, Yr Dok Zoom spent way too much time on the introduction, so we're just going to rush here and then move the discussion to the comments, which Wonkette does not allow. This chapter is all about the rise of industry in the Gilded Age, when industry and government worked together to break strikes and heads. Yep, the Haymarket Bombing and the Homestead strike are in here and I am not going to discuss them in the bloog, because this post is getting out of control, length-wise.
Favorite make-you-sick quote: During the Great Railroad Strike of 1877,
Thomas Alexander Scott, president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, said that strikers should receive "a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread." He got his wish in Pittsburgh on July 21, when militiamen fired on strikers, killing twenty. In response, workers burned thirty-nine buildings and more than fourteen hundred railcars.
Also good in this chapter: the discussion of workers beginning to toy with the option of getting rid of capitalism altogether, from anarchism, to the popularity of Edward Bellamy's 1888 novel of ideas, Looking Backward: 2000–1887, which tells the story of a time traveler from 1887 who
wakes up in 2000 and finds all the problems of the Gilded Age solved through a peaceful revolution that replaced competitive capitalism with a cooperative society. Reading and discussion groups known as Bellamy societies popped up around the country to implement his ideas. By 1891, the book had sold nearly half a million copies, making it the biggest bestseller of its era.
Yr Dok Zoom remembers reading Looking Backward in high school and mostly missing the important stuff -- I was too annoyed by how the book "failed" as science fiction. Much later, I read Ursula K. Le Guin and realized the machines and zap guns aren't really the point.
OK, kids, off to the comments with you! I will jump in and join you, as soon as I throw together a quick Nice Things post also too! Here's our schedule for the rest of this book club, and I promise to pace myself better when I write my remaining two book club posts! Go buy the darn book, will ya?
March 3: Chapters 4-7 (The Anthracite Strike and Progressivism, The Bread and Roses Strike, The Flint Sit-Down Strike, and the Oakland General Strike)
March 10: Chapters 8-10 (Lordstown and Workers in a Rebellious Age, the Air Traffic Controllers' Strike, and Justice for Janitors and Immigrant Unionism) and Conclusion.
[A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis. 2018, The New Press. $18.29 in Hardcover / $17.38 Kindle e-book]
Yr Wonkette is supported by reader donations! Please send money and Dok will work on editing. Also, did you buy your own copy of A History of America in Ten Strikes yet? Get to it, you!
Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.