Strike!, Fifty Years and Counting

The first time I read Jeremy Brecher’s classic work of labor history, Strike! was the summer of 1974. I had picked up the book the previous fall at a bookstore servicing the college community at the University of Maryland in College Park. My other purchase that day was Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s funny what one remembers. I was working as a short-order cook at a local IHOP in 1974 and if any place needed some justice for its workers, that IHOP certainly qualified. Not that anything like that was going to happen, but it was nice to fantasize. Brecher’s tales of strikes and militant labor actions by workers demanding respect, fair wages, and union representation fired me up almost as if I were participating in the events he describes.

Almost fifty years since its first publication, Brecher and PM Press have just published a fiftieth anniversary edition of the text. This edition includes a new section titled “Mini Revolts of the Twenty-first Century” that adds about 150 new pages. In this section, Brecher examines the numerous and varied movements we have witnessed since the millennium broke. Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement, teachers strikes, the Puerto Rican uprising that resulted in the governor’s resignation, the uprisings in response to racist vigilante and police murder and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement. Of course, given the publication date, the current wave of protests and rebellion in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police are not included. Yet, if the intention of writing history is to inspire, provoke and connect the past to the present, Brecher’s discussion of the earlier protests around the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and so many others does all that and more.

This book is a working-class history of capitalism in the United States. In other words, it’s a history of the last century and a half in that nation. The heroes of this tale are not named Andrew Carnegie, Philip Pullman or Rockefeller. Instead, they are the men and women who grew tired of being squeezed by corporate owners and railroad titans; tired of being living examples of Marx’s theory of surplus value; tired of watching their children go hungry with no hope of ever having a full stomach. They are the people who said enough is enough and rebelled against their exploitation and abuse. Sometimes they were successful in their fight. Many other times they were not. All too often their demands for a decent wage and better lives for their children were met with Pinkertons, vigilantes, National Guard troops and even the US Army. Live gunfire and bayonets dropped way too many working people standing up for themselves in the greed-driven economy that is US capitalism.

While Brecher provides the reader with stories of strikes and reaction, his narrative tells the history of US capitalism’s march towards domination of the world via innovation and what can best be described as a conspiracy between the federal government and Wall Street. A country founded by men whose motivation was profit and whose bank accounts included human beings they enslaved, traded and bred needed a government they could manipulate. Perhaps more than any other nation, the United States economic system requires a national government that does what is best for its richest business people. This is precisely why working people resisted and also why the owning classes responded as harshly as they did—with guns, brutality and starvation. The fact that after all is said and done the system remains as exploitative as ever is why working people continue to resist.

Strike! is about unions and union members, but it is also about workers who are not unionized and may never be. It is about the fight for unions and the struggle by workers to make certain that their unions are democratic and anti-hierarchical, of the workers they represent and for the working class in general. It is the unfortunate history of unionism in the United States that too many union officials identify more with the employers than with the workers they are supposed to represent. This is one (among many) reasons why union membership is at the low mark it is today.

Throughout this history are two constant threads. One is that when working people unite forces and stand together against what we now call the one percent, they have a better chance of winning. The other is that in more than ninety-nine percent of protests, strikes and other actions by working people against the greedy practices of the one percent, the police stand with the one percent, not the workers. In other words, the police attack, arrest and brutalize working people at the behest of the bosses. They are muscle for the one percent and apparently incapable of acting in any other way. The daily news from the current wave of protests against police brutality and systemic racism reminds us of the ongoing truth of this unfortunate fact.

Since the middle of March 2020, millions of workers in the United States have been laid off or their jobs were terminated. Other workers in what are deemed essential jobs continue to risk their health every day they go to work. Still others are being forced to go back to work or lose their jobs and unemployment insurance while the COVID-19 pandemic rages across the United States and other parts of the world. In response, workers have walked off their job sites to demand better health protection; others have picketed and rallied in response to threats to cut their wages and/or lay off front line workers. Many more, however, feel they have little recourse but to do what the boss requests and hope they don’t get sick. It is quite likely that the next few months will see many more working people lose their jobs, their homes and possibly their lives. This is taking place mostly because governments across the United States from Washington, DC to Texas to Vermont are putting Wall Street before people.

If there was ever a time to build a movement demanding a government bailout of the people who live and work in the United States and not the people who exploit their labor, that time is now. If there is a book that can serve as both an inspiration and a manual on how to build that movement, Jeremy Brecher’s Strike! is that book.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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