When I was approached about writing a blog on good summer reading, I knew exactly what book I would write about—Barbara Kingsolver’s first book, which was non-fiction, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. I read this book for the first time when I was in graduate school. I was taking a seminar on politics and organizations from Cal Morrill and Mayer Zald. I am not sure which one of them, or both, had decided to include the book, but it was fantastic. From a stylistic perspective, it’s great summer reading because Kingsolver brings all of the novelist’s intrigue and style into this non-fiction work (which also makes it a wonderful monograph for an undergraduate class). Her exceptional writing makes the book an effortless read and yet the lessons you can take from the book might haunt you for years, as they have for me.
Substantively, the focus of the book is on the Great Mine Strike of 1983 in Arizona. Phelps Dodge is the primary antagonist in the story, and the unions representing minors in several Arizona cities are the protagonists. Living in Tucson at the time, the book nonetheless transported me to a different part of Arizona and a different time—much of the story unfolds in the Reagan years in several remote towns, including Ajo, which is several hours west of Tucson (closer to Yuma at the California border than Tucson), Morenci and Clifton, which are northeast of Tucson, and Bisbee and Douglas in Southeast Arizona. In Kingsolver’s telling, these were classic “buy American,” rural small towns where mining offered the best blue collar jobs around. The strikes at each location started as fairly routine occurrences; strikes were common when contracts were coming up for renegotiation. Short work stoppages offered the workers a vacation and offered companies time to do maintenance that was not possible during normal production periods. However, it soon became clear that this contract dispute would be different and that the goal was to break the unions. In the end, that is what happened. Four years after the strikes began, the National Labor Relations Board decertified the unions.
Kingsolver’s riveting telling of the strikes has three theoretical upsides that make the book even more than it first appears. First, the book is a provocative and thick description of a labor dispute from the ground up. If you liked Fantasia’s Cultures of Solidarity for the power of its description, you will love this book. If you wanted to teach much of what was in Fantasia’s work but with an even more approachable book for undergraduates, you could not go wrong choosing Kingsolver’s book.
Second, the focus of the book is really on the role of women in the strikes. So, if you are interested in gender and social movements, this is a must read for the summer. The book artfully explores the different opportunities women had to protest and support the strike (most legal restrictions on strikers were formally focused on their miner husbands). It explores the family dynamics when primary earnings shifted from husband to wife. It explores how “women’s auxiliaries” were often so much more than auxiliary. If you are interested in case studies similar to Robnett’s work on the civil rights movement, then you will find this book has much to offer.
Finally, this book has a great deal to say about the dynamics of legal repression. In fact, it inspired me to think much more critically about the role of arrests in repression and I used the mine strike as the empirical basis for a largely theoretical article on the potential repressive impacts of arrests (Earl 2005). Kingsolver takes you through the ins and outs of how a state can lawfully antagonize labor movements and how the state can team up with private elite interests to create an even more powerful punch in small company towns. While it certainly featured the violence that repression scholars are accustomed to studying—including a flagrant over-use of force when tear gas canisters were used inside a building for no good cause—the book’s more challenging portrayal is of the devastating effects of injunctions, arrests, and disingenuous prosecutions. It brought Barkan’s (1984) arguments about movement-killing aspects of arrests into thick empirical relief. And, it sparked my continuing desire to unpack the real consequences of form of protest control that so many folks—both inside and outside of the academy—continue to think of as benign.
In sum, I really recommend this book as a great summer read. I think the only regret you will have is that you hadn’t read it sooner.
Barkan, Steven E. 1984. “Legal Control of the Southern Civil Rights Movement.” American Sociological Review 49:552-565.
Earl, Jennifer. 2005. “You Can Beat the Rap, But You Can’t Beat the Ride.” Research in Social Movements, Conflict, and Change 26:101-139.
Fantasia, Rick. 1988. Cultures of Solidarity: Consciousness, Action and Contemporary American Workers. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kingsolver, Barbara. 1989. Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983. New York: ILR Press.
Robnett, Belinda. 1997. How Long? How Long? African-American Women in the Struggle for Civil Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.