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Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States

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Workers in the United States have a rich tradition of fighting back and achieving gains previously thought unthinkable, from the weekend, to health care, to the right to even form a union. But in 2005, the number of workers organized in unions reached a 100-year low in both the public and private sectors, even though more and more people would like the protection of a union Workers in the United States have a rich tradition of fighting back and achieving gains previously thought unthinkable, from the weekend, to health care, to the right to even form a union. But in 2005, the number of workers organized in unions reached a 100-year low in both the public and private sectors, even though more and more people would like the protection of a union, and real wages for most workers have stagnated or declined since the early 1970s. Smith explores how the connection between the US labor movement and the Democratic Party, with its extensive corporate ties, has repeatedly held back working-class struggles. And she closely examines the role of the labor movement in the 2004 presidential election, tracing the shrinking electoral influence of organized labor and the failure of labor-management cooperation, “business unionism,” and reliance on the Democrats to deliver any real gains. Smith shows how a return to the fighting traditions of US labor history, with their emphasis on rank-and-file strategies for change, can turn around the labor movement. Subterranean Fire brings working-class history to light and reveals its lessons for today. Sharon Smith is the author of Women and Socialism, also published by Haymarket Books, as well as many articles on women’s liberation and the US working class. Her writings appear regularly in Socialist Worker newspaper and the International Socialist Review. She has also written for the journal Historical Materialism and is a contributor to Iraq Under Siege :The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War and Women and the Revolution by Ethel Mannin. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.


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Workers in the United States have a rich tradition of fighting back and achieving gains previously thought unthinkable, from the weekend, to health care, to the right to even form a union. But in 2005, the number of workers organized in unions reached a 100-year low in both the public and private sectors, even though more and more people would like the protection of a union Workers in the United States have a rich tradition of fighting back and achieving gains previously thought unthinkable, from the weekend, to health care, to the right to even form a union. But in 2005, the number of workers organized in unions reached a 100-year low in both the public and private sectors, even though more and more people would like the protection of a union, and real wages for most workers have stagnated or declined since the early 1970s. Smith explores how the connection between the US labor movement and the Democratic Party, with its extensive corporate ties, has repeatedly held back working-class struggles. And she closely examines the role of the labor movement in the 2004 presidential election, tracing the shrinking electoral influence of organized labor and the failure of labor-management cooperation, “business unionism,” and reliance on the Democrats to deliver any real gains. Smith shows how a return to the fighting traditions of US labor history, with their emphasis on rank-and-file strategies for change, can turn around the labor movement. Subterranean Fire brings working-class history to light and reveals its lessons for today. Sharon Smith is the author of Women and Socialism, also published by Haymarket Books, as well as many articles on women’s liberation and the US working class. Her writings appear regularly in Socialist Worker newspaper and the International Socialist Review. She has also written for the journal Historical Materialism and is a contributor to Iraq Under Siege :The Deadly Impact of Sanctions and War and Women and the Revolution by Ethel Mannin. She lives in Chicago, Illinois.

30 review for Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States

  1. 5 out of 5

    David M

    Forget liberal vs conservative, Democrat vs Republican. Sharon Smith peels back the veil of American partisan politics to give us the long suppressed history of labor versus capital in the United States. Maybe the jewel of the Haymarket catalog.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Laurie Neighbors

    Solid history of working-class radicalism, if you didn't pick that up from the title. Probably the material here will not be new to you if you know your way around labor movements and organizing, but this is a good book to recommend to those who do not. It's accessible and interesting, with a good mix narrative and policy analysis. Even students love it, even students who hate everything.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Iris

    This book is a must-read for anyone interested in changing the world (particularly in America). The labor history of the United States is largely not taught to us in school, and largely not talked about otherwise. Reading about this history will blow your mind, satisfaction guaranteed, particularly if - like many people (me included) - you feel powerless as a citizen of this country. This book shows that the working class when unified in solidarity is not powerless, and the situation is not hope This book is a must-read for anyone interested in changing the world (particularly in America). The labor history of the United States is largely not taught to us in school, and largely not talked about otherwise. Reading about this history will blow your mind, satisfaction guaranteed, particularly if - like many people (me included) - you feel powerless as a citizen of this country. This book shows that the working class when unified in solidarity is not powerless, and the situation is not hopeless. As a socialist, it was also incredibly fascinating for me to learn that socialists/communists and other groups on the revolutionary left (largely anarchists) have has a HUUUUUGE impact on the social gains we've made in the last two centuries. These groups got us the 8 hour day, won the very right to unionize, and many have been fighting to end racism, sexism and other kinds of division among the working class. This book is about the labor movement, about the working class. But that's not just some abstract concept, "the working class" means you and me. It means people, specifically anyone not in a position of government or business power. This is what's so amazing. After reading this your perspective will be very much changed. The only question left is, "how do we recreate this solidarity today?"

  4. 5 out of 5

    Brian Napoletano

    Sharon Smith's "Subterranean Fire" reviews the history of the labor movement from the late 1800s to the second Bush's administration. Smith's work offers valuable insight into the trends that shaped the rise of unions near the beginning of the twentieth century and the factors that contributed to their ongoing decline. She also presents a more complete picture of the working class' struggles, and points out the persistence of rank-and-file activists even during periods of apparent retreat by lar Sharon Smith's "Subterranean Fire" reviews the history of the labor movement from the late 1800s to the second Bush's administration. Smith's work offers valuable insight into the trends that shaped the rise of unions near the beginning of the twentieth century and the factors that contributed to their ongoing decline. She also presents a more complete picture of the working class' struggles, and points out the persistence of rank-and-file activists even during periods of apparent retreat by large unions like the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters. The picture that results is one of a recurring cycle of repression and rebellion, where the ruling class increasingly exploits and intimidates the working class until it eventually pushes to far, and the workers begin to organize and fight back. Smith also reviews the various tactics that the ruling class has used to contain these rebellions, such as the anti-Communist hysteria that followed the second world war, the efforts by the Democratic Party to capture and contain the momentum driving popular progressive movements, and contemporary efforts to use fearmongering and the threat of terrorism to further expand repression and distrust and curtail the right to organize and resist further exploitation. She concludes by describing the crisis that workers in the US, and around the world, now face: either working people in the US continue to allow the ruling class to divide them against each other by nationality, gender, sexuality, and race until their living standards fall to those of a "third-world" nation, or they reverse the balance of class forces by uniting in solidarity in the fight to raise the living standards of the poorest workers at home and around the world.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Claudia

    I really enjoyed this read and feel it should be mandatory for any activist who is serious. It was a fairly easy read that still managed to offer adequate detail and thoroughness. My only real criticisms: 1) the book lacks a clear explanation of who constitutes the working class in America and comes off as saying all employed people who are not rich are in the same class (except union big wigs) and 2) the book is more than generous in its portrayal of racial unity and anti racist efforts in the I really enjoyed this read and feel it should be mandatory for any activist who is serious. It was a fairly easy read that still managed to offer adequate detail and thoroughness. My only real criticisms: 1) the book lacks a clear explanation of who constitutes the working class in America and comes off as saying all employed people who are not rich are in the same class (except union big wigs) and 2) the book is more than generous in its portrayal of racial unity and anti racist efforts in the American Left. Smith gives an excellent argument for why on the ground activism beyond current lukewarm union activities is needed, why class struggle is the only way out, and why class struggle is winnable. Nonetheless, very little is given in terms of directions beyond "WE MUST ENGAGE IN CLASS STRUGGLE". My main gripe with this is that one could easily walk out mistakenly thinking petit bourgeois leadership is valid outside of unions or that racial oppression disappears as long as people are serious about class (both ideas are false). Both points could be severely misleading to someone who has little background in those areas. Either way, I still strongly recommend this book. I read this after reading Settlers by J. Sakai, hence my immediate notice of the excessively rosy framing of race relations (Note: I think this text also adds to what Sakai presented by offering a view of WHY and HOW unions as organizations were able to dismiss interests of non white workers in the US).

  6. 5 out of 5

    Scott

    Really important labor history everyone should read. I wish an editor had caught her claim that Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes on the day he was killed, a false narrative put forth by The New York Post's Bob McManus, because it hurts her credibility, which is all-important in a book like this.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Karen Mcnair

    An excellent introduction of working class movements in America. However, it should be understood that Smith is by no means neutral in her assessment and therefore while the book gives an abundant amount of information supplemental reading is suggested for a more rounded assessment of working class movements.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Tom

    Overall, this book is a great documentation of the history of labor struggles in the United States. Excellent response to those who argue that the American working class is "bought off " and unable to fight. This book can be a little slow at times, though.

  9. 4 out of 5

    gabriel morales

    good information, but i felt like it jumped around in time too much.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Colly J

    This book is fucking stupendous. While it more than wears its “People’s History...” influences on it’s sleeve, it does so in a way that is engaging, compelling, and challenging. Smith often offers a mid-level amount of evidence to back up her claims, allowing the book to not get bogged down by the minutia, while still offering enough support to keep her claims credible. It is a depressing read, as the reader is bombarded with event after event proving that the class divide in America has been, a This book is fucking stupendous. While it more than wears its “People’s History...” influences on it’s sleeve, it does so in a way that is engaging, compelling, and challenging. Smith often offers a mid-level amount of evidence to back up her claims, allowing the book to not get bogged down by the minutia, while still offering enough support to keep her claims credible. It is a depressing read, as the reader is bombarded with event after event proving that the class divide in America has been, and remains, dangerous and a threat to the majority of the population. This book is an important cold shower to awaken the reader to the amount of fuckery that goes on to keep working class populations oppressed, but complacent about their oppression. Eat the fucking rich. Burn limos. Exile all CEO’s.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Brandyn Murillo

    This book should be a staple in classrooms across America. In fact, across the entire world. The book traverses decades of the the labor movement, from its most glorious parts to its downfall. It documents the disgusting parts of US history in bright lights, and the actions from people that were more than questionable. Better yet, it adds a humanity to the benefits that we enjoy from our labor today: from the Flint strikes to the decline in unionism today, the book documents it all. Of course, th This book should be a staple in classrooms across America. In fact, across the entire world. The book traverses decades of the the labor movement, from its most glorious parts to its downfall. It documents the disgusting parts of US history in bright lights, and the actions from people that were more than questionable. Better yet, it adds a humanity to the benefits that we enjoy from our labor today: from the Flint strikes to the decline in unionism today, the book documents it all. Of course, the piece is not in a traditional light. It is not even disguised as such. Some may call the book 'biased,' but I would only claim that it adds a non-traditional viewpoint on events that are often viewed in a weakening and diminishing light. Adding humanity (and noting that lack of it in some instances) to the faces of the struggle inherently brings forth the struggle that American labor had to undergo throughout history. The 8 hour work day we enjoy? Workplace standards, like health and safety? All hard fought products of the labor movement. An excellent piece in documenting the struggles throguhout history.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Gretchen Sager

    Another fantastic title from Haymarket books. Thorough explanation of the history of the American labor struggle, even up to recent history. This the exact stuff that they don't let people teach in schools. Sharon Smith's kind of Marxist analysis on history is what we need more of. Would recommend, warning though righteous fury to be provoked by injustices in content.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    Really good intro to the history of U.S. labor radicalism. That said, Smith pontificates on certain points (opposition to "white skin privilege" theory & entryism) in ways that really aren't well supported. Really good intro to the history of U.S. labor radicalism. That said, Smith pontificates on certain points (opposition to "white skin privilege" theory & entryism) in ways that really aren't well supported.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Kendra

    I really enjoyed this book, I recommend if you are interested in anything relating to class struggle and the radicalism of the working class particularly, though it does give a good background on other struggles.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Bradley Herring

    The update, essentially the last 100 or so pages, feels tacked on and scattershot, but the bulk of the work is an essential overview of labor history, which we all should grasp better than we do.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Dan Sharber

    this is the kinda stuff that should be taught in school and isn't. it talks about all the labor struggles and strikes that have gone on in the us over the last 100+ years.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Brie

    Everyone calling themselves an American should read this book.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Heidi

    Wonderful overview of American working class history. Will by turns enrage and inspire you.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mills College Library

    303.484 S659 2006

  20. 4 out of 5

    Doris

    This book documents the history of labor struggles in the United States thru a Marxist perspective. It is excellent. All labor issues activists should read it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    Essential reading on labor history in the US

  22. 4 out of 5

    Joe Richardson

    The Marxist theology colors the history with revolutionary flare. For some this style is exciting, maybe even needed, but I found it obscuring.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kate Seader

    An excellent and easy to read history of the United States Labor movement. Does a great job of being critical of all parties involved and open surrounding grey areas.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Emilia

    AMAZING. Explains so much of our current conditions. Inspiring.

  25. 5 out of 5

    JDR

    Notable Indicators for Bias: -> Published by Haymarket Books. -> Published by an Activist and Socialist writer. This is not a bad book as my two stars would suggest. But bluntly stated, it requires no shocking mention that this is a heavily left-wing interpretation of modern American history. It romanticizes the labor movement and demonizes businesses and any political figures who hold free market principles, for example Ronald Reagan. It serenades Eugene Debs and the political activity of radical Notable Indicators for Bias: -> Published by Haymarket Books. -> Published by an Activist and Socialist writer. This is not a bad book as my two stars would suggest. But bluntly stated, it requires no shocking mention that this is a heavily left-wing interpretation of modern American history. It romanticizes the labor movement and demonizes businesses and any political figures who hold free market principles, for example Ronald Reagan. It serenades Eugene Debs and the political activity of radical groups. It selectively chooses quotes and evidence for its arguments; on multiple occasions, I had to skimp over passages that I could see as possessing no empirical value but were instead meant to subconsciously emote the reader to feel a specific emotion in the favor of the author's biases. The most I got out of the book was in its first half when it gave a vividly detailed account of the political activities of Socialist organizations and communist parties within the United States. Personally, I do not find such long exposes on labor, union, and political activities to be interesting in the slightest, but it did its job well and I feel much more informed on the overall movements in the earlier parts of the twentieth century. I can probably surmise it in much fewer words, but being able to succinctly summarize anything requires you to have more knowledge than what you explain to another person in any given subject. For that, I found this title useful. However, as a piece of historical and political analysis, I did not find much merit with it. I disagree with many of its interpretations completely, but it works for understanding deeply leftwing analysis, it's not surprising. Nevertheless, as many of these leftist literature are wanton to make me think, there's no need to constantly retread the same old ground because if I did I would just read the King of them all in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States .

  26. 5 out of 5

    Collin Lysford

    I feel like calling this 4 star vs. 5 star is partly a factor of how much of this history you know already. If you don't know of situations where the US government literally called the military to shoot workers asking for better rights, this is going to be a paradigm changing book for you. There really have been violent forces assembling against solidarity, and they've tried their best to tweak the historical record to make it hard to know about. If the tweaking means that this is all new to you I feel like calling this 4 star vs. 5 star is partly a factor of how much of this history you know already. If you don't know of situations where the US government literally called the military to shoot workers asking for better rights, this is going to be a paradigm changing book for you. There really have been violent forces assembling against solidarity, and they've tried their best to tweak the historical record to make it hard to know about. If the tweaking means that this is all new to you, this will open your eyes. But there's almost an element of insecurity here - the format of this book is a stultifying array of facts bridged with usually-but-not-always-justified-commentary. Given that so many people disagree with the flat historical record, you can't exactly blame Smith for it - but ultimately, I think that someone who wouldn't be convinced by the more impactful half of the facts won't be convinced by the rest of it. I feel like there's an opportunity to have this book be half as long and ten times as readable while still communicating the message it needs to. If you don't know about class struggle in the US, or think that "class struggle" is an overblown term - read this book and it'll change your life. But it can be a bit of a slog to get through, and I don't think it had to be.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Wayne

  28. 5 out of 5

    Shovan

  29. 4 out of 5

    Joe

  30. 5 out of 5

    Brian

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