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Each week at In The Past Lane, the American history podcast, host and Historian-at-Large, Edward T. O’Donnell, brings you news, stories, interviews, and special features on all things U.S. history. His aim is to be both engaging and thought-provoking, inspired by the notion that history explains the world we live in and provides insights into how to achieve a more prosperous, peaceful, and just future. So come along with us as we journey In The Past Lane.  

Aug 29, 2019

This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, it’s time for a special Labor Day episode where I speak with historian Erik Loomis about his new book, “A History of America in Ten Strikes.” The annual Labor Day holiday is often marked by last trips to the beach and backyard barbecues. But Labor Day was established by American workers in 1882 to draw attention to three things: First, the essential role of workers in creating all of the nation’s wealth and abundance. Second, that American workers faced constant threats to their well-being by abusive and greedy employers who forced them work long hours for inadequate pay. And third, that if workers succumbed to this oppression, America would cease to be a democracy. Rather, it would gradually resemble an old world society ruled by a small aristocracy. Long before 1882 and certainly ever since, American workers have had to fight for fairness, justice, equality, and dignity in the workplace. And these concerns are very much alive in 2019. So, as we debate issues like the $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all, Social Security, corporate taxation, automation and robots, and so on, we’d do well to look into the long history of workers and their struggles for a slice of the American dream.

In the course of our discussion, Erik Loomis explains:

Why the history of work and workers is central to US history.

How the onset of the industrial revolution created new conditions for the exploitation of workers – and as a consequence – the first strikes.

Why We should think of the groundswell of self-emancipation of enslaved people during the Civil War as, in the words of WEB DuBois, a general strike.

Why laissez-faire is a myth that obscures the fact that the role of the government in labor-capital conflicts nearly always determines their outcome.  

How and why racism has been a persistent obstacle to workers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds uniting along class lines against their employers. 

Why workers in the Gilded Age believed in capitalism, but also believed that it had become rigged in favor of business over workers.

How small but influential groups of socialists, anarchists, and communists within the labor movement have benefited workers, but also exposed the labor movement to persecution in the name of anti-communism.

How federal policies and court decisions since the 1950s – especially Ronald Reagan’s firing of 11,000 Air Traffic Controllers in 1981 - have dramatically weakened the American labor movement.

And, finally, what are we to make of recent labor actions – especially walkouts and strikes by teachers. 

Recommended reading

Erik Loomis, A History of America in Ten Strikes (The New Press, 2018)

Philip Dray, There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America

Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World

Steven Greenhouse, Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor

Emily Guendelsberger, On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane

David Montgomery, The Fall of the House of Labor

Edward T. O’Donnell, Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age

More info about Erik Loomis - website

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Music for This Episode

Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (

Kevin McCleod, “Impact Moderato” (Free Music Archive)

Andy Cohen, “Trophy Endorphins” (Free Music Archive)

Borrtex, “Perception” (Free Music Archive)

Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)

The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)

Production Credits

Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer

Technical Advisors: Holly Hunt and Jesse Anderson

Podcasting Consultant: Dave Jackson of the School of Podcasting

Podcast Editing: Wildstyle Media

Photographer: John Buckingham 

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