Book Review: “A History of America in 10 Strikes” by Erik Loomis

By Sam Easter, Library Assistant 

A History of America in Ten Strikes, historian Erik Loomis’s story of labor struggle in the U.S., was published in 2018 – but after the last four years of protest movements and hard questions about AI, it feels as relevant as ever.

The book is about American workers and unions and the struggle they’ve faced since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. We start with women in textile factories making next to nothing and we end with the air traffic controllers striking under Ronald Reagan and janitors organizing in Los Angeles.

“This book places the struggle for worker justice at the heart of American history,” Loomis, a historian at the University of Rhode Island, tells us in the opening pages. “This is necessary because we don’t teach class conflict in our public schools.”

But what the book is really about is power struggles. Reading about the General Motors sit-down strike of 1936-37 – in which strikers occupied factory floors and threw heavy objects at the police, who shot at them – one cannot help but think of the student protests against university connections to Israel that shook the country this spring. Grade school children, at least in my day, learned that the Flint strikers stood tall and launched the modern labor movement; the lesson was that they were more or less heroic. What does that mean for how we think of protesters in tents on university quads, and their treatment at the hands of police.

If that is an uncomfortable question, whose fault is that? The temptation is to see those strikes and protests as products of another time and place, which we can then judge by different standards. But Loomis, by lining up nearly two centuries of the country’s strikes end to end, makes it hard to draw a line between the past and the present. His book is a parade of powerful people trying to strongarm less powerful people, and the ultimate lesson of the book might be that it’s folly to draw that line. Perhaps it’s the present that we are judging too rosily.

The book is fairly academic. There is very little scene-setting, and there is almost no riveting prose. Each chapter is nominally about a different strike – whether that’s the women of 19th century New England textile mills or the early roots of the AFL-CIO – but they are also rounded with history of each era of American labor history.

In the book’s first chapter, Loomis shares the story of Nicholas Farwell, who was a train engineer for Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation. In late 1837, he suffered a grievous injury on the job and had his hand amputated; he sued the company for $10,000, and he lost. A court found that he accepted the risk of the work when he was hired.

“The Farwell case was part of a larger transformation in the American legal code to facilitate employer rights at the expense of everyone else,” Loomis writes. “...The courts consistently found in favor of the new corporations, claiming these businesses promoted ‘progress’ in the justification for the courts’ decisions.”

This, again, is where the past leaps off the page to criticize our present. Loomis does a convincing job of framing this pursuit of “progress” as misguided and a disaster for powerless laborers. The Farwell case, he writes, “directly led to tens of thousands of dead workers and millions who suffered from tuberculosis, lead poisoning, electrocution, severed limbs, hair ripped from workers’ scalps after being in caught in machinery, suffocation in coal mines, and other workplace hazards and diseases in a nation where corporations had no responsibility for their workers’ safety and health.”

Here is another voice about progress: Harvard Magazine paraphrasing Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, speaking at the university earlier this year.

Some have been critical of Altman’s relentless push for progress in the face of advanced AI’s potential dangers. Altman himself signed, last year, a letter describing AI as an extinction risk for humanity; testifying before Congress, he said that “if this technology goes wrong, it can go quite wrong.” But he’s skeptical that slowing progress is the way to mitigate those threats.

The magazine is referencing Skynet-level doomsday scenarios that are faintly ridiculous at this stage – HAL 3000 launching all the nukes or some such. It captures none of the concerns writers, journalists, lawyers and voice actors have for their livelihoods, not to mention the concerns we can’t even imagine yet. What would the labor leaders of Farwell’s day make of it? Ten Strikes leaves the reader with constant realizations like these, holding a grotesque past up to the present and concluding they’re uncomfortably similar.

Loomis’s politics are not subtle. Throughout the book, he is very clear that he is arguing for greater class consciousness and against the racial resentment that divides workers in the face of exploitation. He is unsparing on Donald Trump, whom Loomis says had “the best performance by a Republican among union voters” since Ronald Reagan drubbed Walter Mondale in 1984. “His campaign brought back the worst tendencies of white workers to choose racism over inclusivity,” Loomis writes.

One wonders, with six years passed, what the latest chapter of this book would now be. He ends his discussion of the modern push to unionize janitors, which focuses on the 1990s and 2000s. Since then, we’ve seen unionization movements — and big corporate pushback against them — at Starbucks and Amazon. The UAW is pushing into the previously hostile South. A new era is dawning for labor in the U.S.

Part of that new era is the growing realization that, for the vast majority of Americans, “labor” is not a welder on the factory floor, a farmworker in the sun or a janitor working long hours. It’s Uber drivers and journalists and baristas, too. You, dear reader, are probably labor, too.

“Too often we identify with our bosses and our companies instead of with our fellow workers,” Loomis writes. “Your boss is not your friend. Without a union, your boss can fire you at will. And while you might be the best worker the company has ever seen, you have no power to control your own destiny without a union.”

Heady stuff. Ten Strikes is an uncompromising look at how far we’ve come – and an uncomfortable one at how little we’ve changed.