Not so long ago strikes were deemed counterproductive, says Commonweal magazine (3/26/18). That was until this past February when 20,000 teachers in West Virginia walked off the job. This job action, Commonweal notes, initially occurred “without collective bargaining powers or the legal right to go on strike.” Yet it was “well-executed [and] wide-scale… Its size and scope proved critical.” With visible public sympathy and sufficient solidarity, the West Virginia teachers were successful. Credit goes to “a decentralized rank-and-file made up mostly of women,” Commonweal concludes.
The West Virginia example does not mean that the strike tactic is back. Nor that it is a sure-fire remedy to income inequality. Strikes are still rare in our country–maybe a dozen notable ones per year. Further, strikes are often broken with no immediate improvement for our country’s workers.
The full positive results of a strike and of the union movement itself might only materialize some years after the event. That’s a conclusion to draw from A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis (The New Press, 2018).
The book’s first chapter centers on the “mill girls” of the early 19th century. A New England economy based entirely on farms and craft shops gave way in 1793 when Samuel Slater (1768-1835) opened a textile mill in Pawtucket, RI. Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817) thereafter opened another mill along the Charles River in Boston. His company expanded after his death, including a mill along the Merrimack River in a town renamed for Lowell. That town was nicknamed Spindle City because by the mid-1800s its 40 textile mills and 10,000 looms, operating six days a week, produced about 100million yards of cloth per year.
Instead of using child labor these mills recruited young women from area farms and elsewhere. The young workers, who were capable of operating somewhat complicated machines, lived in boarding houses and were encouraged to read and to attend cultural events. For some young women at the time, it was considered a great adventure to assert independence from their families. However, workdays were routinely 13 hours. The definition of young woman was really teenager. The workers paid for their company housing and their employer increased rent when the company wanted more discipline.
In 1834 and again in 1836 the town’s mills cut wages. In both cases a strike spread to several mills, but was crushed within a week. In 1845 the young women added a strategy: Documenting health and safety concerns and then testifying in favor of a state-mandated 10-hour workday. Only nearby New Hampshire legislated 10 hours, but its mills ignored the law with impunity.
Think about the struggle of these young workers come February 2019 when your donut shop hands you some change. You might see a quarter honoring Lowell National Historical Park (www.nps.gov/lowe). On the quarter is a woman toiling at a cotton loom and a clock tower in the background. Modernity requires increased public awareness of hours and minutes. Thus one town after another installed mechanical clock towers. The Boott Mill clock tower of 1835, as depicted on the new coin, symbolizes New England’s transition from a village economy to an industrial economy—for better and for worse.
Loomis tells about autoworkers in Flint during December 1936-January 1937 in another chapter of Ten Strikes. As with the West Virginia teachers, these autoworkers were two steps ahead of their union leaders. Most strikes, of course, occur outdoors with picket lines, protest signs, maybe lawn chairs and maybe a huge inflatable rat. But the strike in Flint was different. The workers sat to conquer. That is, they stayed inside; commandeering in a sense all of General Motors’ expensive equipment. Again as in West Virginia, the women from town played the crucial role. With coordination they brought food and newspapers into the plant; they rallied citizen support, not only in Flint but in other locales.
The AFL at this time, Loomis explains, was focused on craft workers across lines of employers. The door was thus open for the United Mine Workers, the United Auto Workers and the CIO to organize all the workers of a single employer and then all the workers in a specified industry. The champion of this type of organizing was John L. Lewis (1880-1969), and he was a major factor in the Flint job action.
Loomis drives home one of his main themes in this chapter. There are three major players in the national economy: big business, organized families/workers and government. Workers cannot make headway, Loomis argues, without some support from government. In the Flint example, the workers’ ally was Governor Frank Murphy (1890-1949), who was later appointed to the Supreme Court. At a tense moment, Murphy sent the National Guard to the General Motors plant. But not—as was expected—to evict the workers. Murphy had the National Guard protect the workers. General Motors was soon ushered to the bargaining table where they gave recognition to Lewis and the United Auto Workers.
Ten Strikes is a good introduction to U.S. labor history. Loomis, however, trips on his rhetoric once or twice. Workers today must take back “our dignity from our employer,” he wrongly writes. This is a misunderstanding of power with potentially serious consequences.
No employer can give a worker dignity. A job promotion does not confer dignity. An employee of the month award is not about dignity. Paternalism is incapable of adding to dignity. Likewise, no employer can take away an employee’s dignity. Harassment, for example, is a sin, but it does not diminish the essence of a worker. No one loses an ounce of dignity if his or her hours are cut. Dignity is innate; it is God-given. The truth about power is that each person—middle manager, owner, janitor, skilled engineer, clerk, receptionist and more—possesses as a gift from birth the power of one’s own dignity. It can’t be given away; it can’t be taken away. Don’t ever think that it can.
Droel edits INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a print newsletter on faith and work.