Labor’s Unrest: A Review of American Lightning


american lightning

Arguments about concentrating power and wealth in the rich, running unions out of existence,  the existence of plans to ruin the unions by business, crushing unions advanced in American Labor Unions in their continuing saga against repealing laws requiring non-union employees to pay union dues are similar to those recounted in Howard Blum’s American Lightning. Blum retells in narrative non-fiction, rather in academic prose, the story of the 1910 bombing of the L.A. Times  building. It was literally blown to smithereens.

Credit: Library of Congress - see Clarence Darrow cite at end of review for link to photograph

Credit: Library of Congress – see Clarence Darrow cite at end of review for link to photograph

For those who don’t know, narrative non-fiction (that I have read) does not cite lots of sources, at least not in the traditional style of copious footnotes or end notes. Nor, does this type of literature include an exhaustive Works Cited or References section. Narrative non-fiction also reads like a novel, but with more informational dumps than in fiction, surpassing most literary or historical fiction.

Although some critics contend that Blum’s narrative jumps or that certain characters, including film producer D.W. Griffith, 220px-David_Wark_Griffith_1919took away from the narrative, I disagree. At first, I could see their point. But, when, both sides started capitalizing on the value of PR (public relations) to the outcome (in other words trying their case in the press), the moving picture became a significant weapon in each side’s arsenal. The films (and newspaper articles), as described by Blum, appear to be bombastic propaganda pieces like the anti-Western media the governments of China, North Korea, or Russia direct at their citizens.

The time period that Blum wrote about was inherently more violent, if on a larger scale. 45 years had passed since the end of the American Civil War and still life had not settled down. America had been in one after another uprisings since the American Revolution. Movements were spawned; groups formed. These movements and groups clashed with each other and with the law and corporate America. Each faction, whether business, law, or special interest had a radical, a fighter itching to engage.

And, engage they did. This is why “security” was, and is now, a hot button word, why courthouses and government offices stay mindful of lurkers, anarchists in the days gone by.  Blum goes into this, pointing out the similarities between the actions of the McNamara brothers (John J. “JJ”-life sentence and James “JB”-15 years ) and other union officials who were later prosecuted. It is a book worth reading if for no other reason.


Additional Reading: The McNamara Brothers Trial