A fresh history of American labor and the strikes that resulted from companies’ mistreatment of workers.
In each chapter, labor historian Loomis (History/Univ. of Rhode Island; Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe, 2015, etc.) discusses the specifics of a strike followed by a section of context about the broader issues in American society undergirding the unrest. The author begins with the women laborers in the mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, who fought terrible factory conditions, during strikes in 1834 and 1836. Refreshingly, Loomis includes the resistance of African-American slaves as a labor-management issue, a topic that constitutes the second chapter. “By walking away from the plantations,” writes the author, “withholding their labor from masters who increasingly could not control them, the slaves undermined the southern economy and morales.” Loomis continues chronologically, ending with the rise of service-worker unions starting in the 1980s, groups that consisted mostly of blacks, Latinos, and new immigrants. Many of them labored in restaurants and hotels, but the movement sometimes went by the catchy name of “Justice for Janitors.” Some theories of government state that those elected to exercise power should protect the exploited. The author generally agrees, but he also explains how both federal and state governments almost always side with employers, usually to the detriment of employees. In the modern era of strikes, President Ronald Reagan smashed the union of air-traffic controllers, who actually served as his own employees. The anti-union fervor of Reagan and others has meant a precipitous decline in organized labor unions in numerous industries, leading to deepening wage inequality, job insecurity, and social unrest. Each chapter of this well-told saga could stand on its own, and the author broadens the value of this primer/well-documented advocacy tract with an appendix that briefly describes 150 significant moments in American labor history.
Successfully avoiding academic-ese, Loomis delivers a jargon-free, clearly written history.