Protest & Literature

As an English and History joint honour student, I often find myself considering how historical themes and periods have been portrayed and perceived in media. This is how, on friday, I found myself thinking about strikes I’ve read about in fiction in recent months.

The primary example was the factory workers strike in Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, which I read in December. A whole section of the book (appropriately called ‘Strike’) is devoted to Harry, who operates machinery in a factory and is a local union official. Leaving aside the other aspects of his character and development (he’s a pretty terrible person overall, it’s not necessary to know the details), he is a notorious stickler and generally disliked. But he’s only the former because his position as a union official gives him purpose and power, and he hates his normal job. What I found curious about the strike in this book was the way that the power-holders (the people who own/run the factory) are entirely aware of the upcoming strike and deal with it by simply planning ahead, partially defeating the purpose of the strike. They get their workers to do additional labour to partially cover the work they won’t do during the strike, and then organise for their clients (the factory’s exact purpose is unspecified) to use other companies in their absence. From what I remember the strike was technically successful, but more symbolically than anything else.

It seemed like a very cynical portrayal of a strike, but that got me thinking. This book was written in the 60s, and yet this strike was already heavily regulated. It worked according to the systems of logic we discussed in the lecture, staying for the most part a mild form of direct action with minimal damage to productivity and nothing else. So has logical  regulation and order always been integral to workers strikes? When you consider the various tube and rail strikes in the last few months, it would certainly appear to be so in the present day. But does that take away some of the effectiveness of a strike, and whose interests does it protect? The workers or the power-holders? In the case of Selby’s novel, it was more to the company’s benefit than that of the factory workers. But it can certainly be argued that regulation and logic during strikes now is necessary as it protects the workers from losing their job, or at least as much as possible. And of course, it also ensures that the strike can work effectively, as organisation tends to increase effectivity.

Take another example, Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. This is a completely different context – post-war Brooklyn is replaced with the cold cotton mills of North England a century before. It’s been years since I read the book so I can’t remember the strike perfectly, but what stood out for me back then was that Thornton (the mill owner) hired Irish migrant workers when his English workers went on strike. In this case, it would appear that a lack of logic (or rather, a failure of logic) lead to the original workers being replaced. This leads to violence, which is also illogical, as it is neither symbolic or instrumental. The heroine of the book (Margaret Hale) is injured by a thrown stone, and this delegitimises the strikers and results in the arrival of soldiers. However, as the mill needs skilled workers, the Irish migrants are unable to operate the machinery. So the power-holder is not successful, and eventually he loses a lot of money and the heroine needs to bail him out.

Of course, no matter how much of a social realist Gaskell may have been trying to be, the focus of the novel is still the characters and their relationship rather than the strike itself, and that takes precedence. So perhaps their lack of organisation would have lost the workers their jobs in the real world, or perhaps Thornton would have had to give in to their demands. But it’s fascinating to consider how the logics of protest are at play in this novel, especially since it was written so long before Tilly or any of his peers were writing.


  • Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn, North and south, ed. by Patricia Ingham (London: Penguin Group (USA), 1996)
  • Selby, Hubert, Last exit to Brooklyn (London: Penguin Classics, 2011)
  • Tilly, Charles, ‘Social movements as historically specific clusters of political performances’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology (1993), 1–30

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