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Work then, work now, and organizing to win: Five books about labor in the United States

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As the Trump administration redoubles decades of Republican efforts to beat U.S. workers and their unions into fearful submission, it’s worth thinking about where we’ve come from, how workers fought for some of the rights we now take for granted—and some of those we’re in danger of losing—as well as where we’re going, and how to make it a better place than Trump has in mind. Here are some books to help do exactly that, looking at the history of work and worker organizing in the U.S., at what it’s like to be a low-wage worker in the U.S. today, and at how to organize for a better future.

Erik Loomis’ A History of America in Ten Strikes is just that—and it’s innovative and exciting in how it fulfills its title. Some of the strikes you may have heard of, like the Lowell mill girls or the Flint sit-down strikes. Some you may not have thought of as strikes, like the ways enslaved people fought back, withheld their labor, and ultimately fled to the Union army. But, Loomis writes, “We cannot fight against pro-capitalist mythology in American society if we do not know our shared history of class struggle. This book reconsiders American history from the perspective of class struggle not by erasing the other critical parts of our history—the politics, the social change, and the struggles around race and gender—but rather by demonstrating how the history of worker uprisings shines a light on these other issues.” In line with that promise, each chapter considers not only a particular strike, but also the context in which it happened.

Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age is the examination of the labor movement in recent years/critique of the broader progressive movement/analysis of power structures/organizing handbook you may not have known you needed, but you do. McAlevey uses a series of post-2000 case studies, from the Chicago Teachers Union to “the world’s largest pork production facility,” to argue that “for movements to build maximum power—the power required in the hardest campaigns—there is no substitute for a real, bottom-up organizing model.” Organizing, she writes, “places the agency for success with a continually expanding base of ordinary people, a mass of people never previously involved, who don’t consider themselves activists at all—that’s the point of organizing.” And it’s with organizing, McAlevey makes the case, rather than with advocacy or mobilization, that big change can be made.

Steven Greenhouse’s Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor is a good overview of the arc of the labor movement, from Triangle Shirtwaist to Walter Reuther and the UAW to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to the teacher uprising of the past couple of years. This is a good book to give a relative or friend who needs an intro text, someone who’s sympathetic to workers and open to the appeal of unions but isn’t all-in for organizing. What’s particularly striking about this book is the contrast it presents with the author’s earlier The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, of which I wrote in 2008, “Having clearly shown that it is corporations that most need to change their practices to improve the lot of American workers, Greenhouse is unwilling to suggest that they be confronted in any meaningful way.” Where that book shied away from acknowledging the reality that its detailed reporting laid bare, that corporations are making war on workers, Beaten Down, Worked Up is more willing to confront the political implications of corporate power, while retaining Greenhouse’s stellar reporting skills that make the stories he tells so compelling.

Emily Guendelsberger’s On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane is a book in the tradition of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. After being laid off from a reporting job, Guendelsberger spent time working three different low-wage jobs. She worked in an Amazon warehouse, a call center, and a McDonald’s. Much of the book, of course, is about the routine indignities of these jobs and the financial struggle of making ends meet while working them (though Guendelsberger is clear throughout that “I get to leave”). But what sets it apart is the focus on how technology is used to monitor and control workers, extracting every last possible drop of labor from them—from being timed down to the second at every task to force them to work at top speed through entire shifts to sophisticated scheduling software that ensures that there’s always a line at McDonald’s because there are never quite enough workers. For anyone who thinks that their experience in fast food or retail 15 or 20 years ago means that they know what those jobs are like now, this book is an important corrective.

Joe Burns’ Strike Back: Rediscovering Militant Tactics to Fight the Attacks on Public Employee Unions is an update of a 2014 book—and yes, this is a topic that needed updating between 2014 and 2019. Burns notes that in 2014 “the attacks on public employee unionism were already well underway” in Wisconsin and elsewhere. But those attacks have continued, reaching the Supreme Court with its Janus decision and, of course, reaching the White House with Donald Trump. In response, though, workers—especially teachers—are fighting back. This book offers some of the history behind public employee unions, a history of specific challenges that are being raised again, and a history of militance that is likewise once again relevant.

This article was originally published at Daily Kos on December 22, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is a Daily Kos contributor at Daily Kos editor since December 2006. Full-time staff since 2011, currently assistant managing editor.

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