Pages for Picket Lines: A Labor History Reading List

Since 2013, the labor movement has been coming off the ropes and landing punches. The Economic Policy Institute reported that over 900,000 workers participated in strikes or work stoppages from 2018-2019. The upsurge of the past seven years have included workers at microbreweries, telecommunications firms, big-box stores, schools, and fast food restaurants. Labor’s story is one of the most inspiring, terrifying and dynamic histories to be told. The ways that we understand the history of working-class resistance ultimately shapes what we think of as possible today.

The foundation of Labor History was built by groundbreaking historians grappling ways to tell a history from below. The upsurge of worker rebellions has been accompanied by an upsurge of powerful books! City Lights asked me to put together a reading list that shows the dynamic books out there, a starting point to come to terms with this history.

Workers on Arrival: Black Labor in the Making of America by Joe William Trotter, Jr. (University of California Press)

Trotter illustrates how Black workers have always been central to the story of labor in the United States.

Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone by Sarah Jaffe (Bold Type Books)

Jaffe proves that the quest to emancipate labor is bigger than any collective bargaining contract. This may be the future of labor scholarship!


Knocking on Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide by Lane Windham (University of North Carolina Press)

Fantastic read challenging the notion that labor’s decline was due to lack of organizing in the 1970s. Written by a labor organizer turned academic, and notable for its attention to gender and race.

Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression by Robin D.G. Kelley (University of North Carolina Press)

Kelley, possibly the finest historians in the game today, will make you forget everything you think you know about sharecroppers, the Great Depression, Black organizing, and communists!

Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America by Miriam Frank (Temple University Press)

This book is a needed corrective to labor history often presented through a heterosexual lens.

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

Loomis’ strength is the way he tells labor’s story in an accessible way. Ideal for readers new to labor history and politics.


Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression, edited by Tithi Bhattacharya (Pluto Press)

Possibly one of the most important recent labor anthologies. By updating Social Reproduction Theory, invisible labor is made visible therefore opening up new possibilities for change.

Intersectional Class Struggle: Theory and Practice by Michael Beyea Reagan (AK Press)

Reagan puts to bed the myth that class politics must ignore race and gender in this extremely accessible book.

An African-American and Latinx History of the United States by Paul Ortiz (Beacon Press)

Everyone contemplating what a “Green New Deal” might look like should read Ortiz’s treatment of the Forgotten Workers of America to build a real deal that leaves no worker behind.

Silk Stockings and Socialism: Philadelphia’s Radical Hosiery Workers from the Jazz Age to the New Deal by Sharon McConnell-Sidorick (University of North Carolina Press)

Remarkable book on many levels, McConnell-Sidorick shines when exploring working class culture role in organizing.


Condensed Capitalism: Campbell Soup and the Pursuit of Cheap Production in the Twentieth Century by Daniel Sidorick (ILR Press)

A go-to book to help understand capital’s project to find cheap and controllable labor.

“They’re Bankrupting Us!”: And 20 Other Myths about Unions by Bill Fletcher, Jr. (Beacon Press)

Concise defense of unions that applies a wrecking ball to anti-labor talking points.

Worked Over: How Round-the-Clock Work Is Killing the American Dream by Jamie K. McCallum (Basic Books)

McCallum’s near-perfect defense of the need for workers to have “more time” as well as more money.


Ben Fletcher: The Life and Times of a Black Wobbly by Peter Cole (PM Press)

Cole has unearthed the history of Ben Fletcher, a radical black wobbly whose story echoes many of today’s controversies.

Reconsidering Southern Labor History: Race, Class, and Power, edited by Keri Leigh Merritt and Matthew Hild (University Press of Florida)

Anyone who dismisses the South as permanently conservative needs to read this powerful corrective to the historical record.

From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement by Fred Glass (University of California Press)

This book could alternatively be called “A People’s History of California,” made all the more relevant today as the Golden State becomes the 5th largest economy in the world.

two new poems

downloadSome of the best times in my life happened while travelling around the land now known as North America with the Molotov Mouths Outspoken Word Troupe: Ananda Esteva, Josiah Luis-Alderete, Junebug, George Tirado (RIP), Leroy Moore, Solidad Di Costa, Raw Knowledge and Dani Montgomery (now Gabriel). Our friendships last to this day in various forms, my poetic output has slowed considerably since the end of the Molotovs around 2005. Here are some newer pieces, and there may be some more to come.



let’s build a wall
and sleep tight nighty night and
dream in snowy 
monotone dreams of
snowy monotone futures

let’s build a wall

and scream into the night
you will not erase me
you will not change me
you will never please me

let’s build a wall

i’m the every-est
every man
who has ever set foot
on this land

so let’s build a wall
and blame it on the middle class
and build it with the finest ingredients 
tar and feathers
bayonets and muskets
manure and druthers
recycled hangman’s rope
buffalo bones and arrowheads
organic cotton 
mom’s apple pie
red dirt and bullet shells
unexploded munitions & old computers
tuskegee experiments
broken glass and bullet shells
ancient trees turned into pentagon papers
crows feet & bear claws

let’s not fuck around
our country let’s fix it
with a neon crucifix
with bed sheets
with brown shirts
with ashes from history books

let’s build a wall
and put television screens on it
going to be the big brother
that big brother always wanted

let’s build a wall and
build a national park there sell
blue bottled coffee
for blue blooded people there
let’s build a hotel there too 
let’s build more walls
through every street
every city
every country side
so that wherever you go
there’s a border to cross
and the tender hum of 
sings us to sleep at night
let’s build a wall
with picnic tables and barbeque pits

let’s build a wall
and not think bad thoughts anymore
and  never turn off our televisions anymore
and set our cell phones set only to kill 
and never to stun

let’s build that wall and stop worrying about
which lives matter
because the rainbow is retired now

let’s build a wall
make it so tall
make it so long
make it so you can’t get enough
off tall long walls

let’s build a wall
and pay for it with 
bounced checks
bnd fentanyl scripts 

let’s build a wall.


it is time to survive a plague

stay in doors keep good company 
read octavia butler and bertolt brecht
binge watch something that makes you happy without guilt or regret
then binge read dubois + gramsci + goldman + davis 
then pietri + angelou + alderete + shuck + jordan
listen to music that helps you see beyond walls like simone + strummer 
sing a battle song
plan for what comes next

if you can’t stay indoors, remind yourself
that you deserve the world
you have a right to a roof
the walls, the kitchen sink
a full fridge you deserve
house keys not handcuffs

when it is time to come outside
march like selma
march like ferguson
march like oakland
protect what you love
act up + fight back
shut down 
redistribute without permission

when it is time to make decisions
be like the zapatistas

when you need a new constitution
check out the ten-point program

when it is time to heal
don’t wait for permission

when it is time to escape
find your north star

when it is time to help someone else escape
sew a map into a blanket

when it is time to vote

when it is time to riot

when it is time to burn

burn it like a berrigan

when fascists come to your town be an anti-klan human 
when they are drive from your town
get down and raise a glass

it is time to survive a plague

Conversations at 48 Hills

Over the past year-and-a-half, I’ve been publishing interviews with interesting authors and musicians at Thanks to Marke B. for publishing them!

AIDS, sex, and ‘Illuminations on Market Street’

Activist-author Benjamin Heim Shepard turns to fiction, inspired by working in an SF AIDS housing program in the mid-1990s.

The Mekons’ Sally Timms twangs in to support Community Land Trust

Country-punk legend speaks out about musical politics, joins bandmate Jon Langford for special Thu/4 benefit.

Leticia del Toro grounds her ‘Cafe Colima’ in the lives of ‘everyday Latinas’

Short fiction award-winner speaks about growing up under Reagan in Crocket, Ca., and the pressing need for diversity in literature

Author Amanda Huron on housing and the power of urban ‘commoning’

New book explores DC’s equity housing cooperatives—and may offers some lessons for SF.

Ananda Esteva’s border-crossing, jazz-driven Califaztlan tale

New novel ‘The Wanderings of Chela Coatlícue: Touring Califaztlan’ from the Chilean author is a feminist, ‘choose your own adventure’-type quest.

‘Knucklehead’ author Adam Smyer takes on the turbulent ’90s

A new novel gives a tour of the dystopian Clinton years from a black protagonist’s point of view, with a wicked sense of humor.

Conversations with Gil Fagiani

(It has taken me over a year to write about lessons I learned from my dear friend, Gil Fagiani. Gil died in Spring 2018 and his loss is still felt through all of the communities he was a part of. -JT)

gilfagiani-512x659[1]In 2007, I was looking for a man named Gil Fagiani. At the time, I was doing  research for Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power. Gil’s name had come up in both original documents and interviews as a member of White Lightning. White Lightning was a New Left organization made up of white, working-class New Yorkers. Like their cousin organizations such as Rising Up Angry, The Young Patriots Organization and October 4th Organization they attempted to “Organize their Own” in coalition with radical organizations of color. White Lightning members played an important supporting role in the takeover of Lincoln Hospital. They worked with the Young Lords Party and were the only white organization invited to assist in security work in the Attica solidarity protests in Harlem.

When I finally tracked down Gil’s contact information, I cold called him. When I told him the purpose of my call, and of the research, he was initially taken aback. Turns out that he had circulated a similar book proposal a few years prior. I could tell that he was suspicious, but he promised to let me know if I could interview him before I got on the plane for a trip to New York. That call came just a  few hours before my departure. He acknowledged that he had wanted to be the one to write the story, but that he would be more than happy to be interviewed and help myself and my co-author Amy Sonnie out in anyway he could.

When we met a few days later, it took hours to even start the interview. It turns out that we had both had a deep love of poetry, especially Passolini. In the 1990s, Gil was one of the organizers of Italian-Americans for a Multicultural U.S., while in the 2000s I had worked in ad-hoc organizations such Avanti-Popolo and the Italian-American Political Solidarity Club. We shared a belief that despite the acute white supremacy and conservatism in our communities that Italian-Americans could be extremely receptive to anti-racist ideas.

“But you can’t reach our people sounding like an ideological ton of bricks. You have to start with what we value and make the case that what we want for our families is what all families should have.” Gil said.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about a story that Gil shared with me. In 1971 or 1972 he wrote an essay comparing the trial of Italian-American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti to the Angela Davis trial going on. He believed that histories of solidarity and resistance could be deployed to counter-racism in white ethnic communities.

The story of this essay was painful to him. Gil had clearly hoped that the essay could help turn Italian-American hearts towards the cause of Black Liberation. However the essay never saw a broad audience. After an initial circulation, it was so thoroughly castigated by many people on the left that he destroyed as many copies as he could get his hands on. The main objection was the belief that any positive take on white ethnic history would somehow bolster racism. When I pressed him as to what organizations or individuals made this critique, he refused to name them specifically.

Decades later, we are living in a time  of an emboldened racist right, that has consolidated power. Central to their world view is the idea that European-American values, history and accomplishments will be thrown to the rubbish heap. In Gil’s worldview, history could be used to build up a sense of multi-racial solidarity. In the paranoid world of today’s extreme right, history only holds a single lesson: white supremacy must be maintained or risk erasure.

The consequences of the extreme right’s move to center-stage are all around us, and make it extremely difficult to envision humanity surviving the next several decades of environmental reckoning, let alone making noticeable progress around inequality within racial capitalism. Much of this rests on the  stories that the racist right tells us about what we don’t have in common. I can’t help but think that the stories that Gil wanted the anti-racist left to tell might have led to a better conclusion if allowed to grow and integrated into the long-term organizing project.


Freedom Budgets

Thanks to Rooflines, the blog of the National Housing Institute for running this piece a co-authored with Gordon Mantler about the Freedom Budget for all Americans, authored by longtime civil rights activist and March on Washington organizer Bayard Rustin, was a “step-by-step plan for wiping out poverty in America during the next 10 years.” Written in 1967, it offers a counter-balance to debates about Trump’s first budget. Roundly criticized at the time for being too moderate, most of the proposal’s ideas would be considered far-left by today’s standards of discourse. (In the United States, at least.) Take a look here:

Where Do We Go From Here? Toward a New Freedom Budget.

For further reading: A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today by Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates.



Poor Whites & the Black Panther Party

14721628_10208059266495646_4584833943452439742_nThis recording was made at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. The panel “Poor Whites & the Black Panther Party,” packed the the conference room at the Oakland Museum of California. There are a ton of critical issues discussed here around the intersections of class, race  and gender in contemporary organizing.

Panelists: Marilyn Katz (Jobs or Income Now!) Chuck Armsbury (Patriot Party) Hy Thurman (Young Patriots Organization), Amy Sonnie (Co-author Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times)

Moderator: Chance Grable, UC Berkeley.

Listen here:


About half way in, an excerpt from the documentary American Revolution II was screened. You can watch that here:


Audio From The Original Rainbow Coalition Online Seminar

bpp8If you missed the online seminar for the Lessons From the Original Rainbow Coalitions (9/9/16), you can listen to the audio here:

Thanks to the Kairos Center for having Hy Thurman and myself over to tell the story of how the Young Patriots, Young Lords, Black Panthers and Rising Up Angry catalyzed the Original Rainbow Coalitions. Please note that this audio recording references some photos we shared on the conference. I’ll be working on a combined audio/visual version of this in the near future.


Online Seminar: the Original Rainbow Coalition

The Original Rainbow Coalition, formed in Chicago in the late 1960’s, was the alliance between the Chicago Black Panther Party, Puerto Rican Young Lords, and Poor White Young Patriots Organization. It was one of the moments in the history of this country where poor people came together across racial lines to build power, support each other, and fight for their shared interests.

The Original Rainbow Coalition represented a real threat to the established powers both locally in Chicago and nationally. The Chicago police conspired with the FBI to assassinate Fred Hampton, one of the key figures from the Black Panther Party, in his bed and to seriously undermine the Rainbow Coalition effort.

On Friday, September 9th at 12pm EST, the Kairos Center will  hold an online seminar about the history of the Original Rainbow Coalition and its lessons for today. We’ll be led by James Tracy, co-author of Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times and Hy Thurman, who was a leader in the Young Patriots Organization at the time of the Rainbow Coalition.

To register, please visit: the Kairos Center’s website:



The Original Rainbow Coalition: An Interview With Bobby Lee

bpp8.jpgBobby Lee moved to Chicago in the late 1960s as a VISTA volunteer, and joined the Black Panther Party. He was instrumental in bringing together the first Rainbow Coalition—a teaming of the Puerto Rican Young Lords and the white Young Patriots Organization. This is a short excerpt of a longer interview with Lee, for an upcoming book I’m working on about white working class New Left groups. It was originally published in Area Magazine, one of my favorite new periodicals.

JT: In Chicago, you formed the first Rainbow Coalition with the Young Lords and the Young Patriots Organization. Was this controversial in the Black Panther Party? I don’t think it could have been easy for Black Radicals to accept working with whites who wore the Confederate Flag on their uniforms.

BL: First of all, the Patriots’ leader William “Preacherman” Fesperman was one of the best human beings I have ever met. He was originally from North Carolina before he moved to Chicago. However, many of the Panthers left the group when we built alliances. Some didn’t like the Patriots, some just didn’t like white people in general. They were heavy into nationalism. To tell the truth, it was a necessary purging, except for these niggers took themselves out of the organization. The Rainbow Coalition was just a code word for class struggle.

Preacherman would have stopped a bullet for me, and nearly tried. Once, I was in a meeting up in Uptown, and I decided to leave by myself. I immediately determined that the police were following me. I made the mistake of leaving alone. The cop called out “You know what to do,” and I put my hands up against the wall. Preacherman came outside and saw what was going on, and in the cold of winter brought the men, women and the children outside. The cops put me in the car and they totally surrounded it, demanding my release. The cop called someone and they must have told him to let me go. I’ll never forget looking at all those brave motherfuckers standing in the light of the police car, but staring in the face of death.

JT: Looking back, was there enough basis for unity?

BL: Hell, yeah! When I went to Uptown Chicago, I saw some of the worst slums imaginable. Horrible slums, and poor white people lived there. However, two organizations prepared the way for the Rainbow Coalition, without them there wouldn’t have been a chance of forming one. Rising Up Angry (rua) and JOIN Community Union. The uptown neighborhood was prime recruiting zone for white supremacists. Most of the cats who were in the Patriots also had at least one family member in the Klan. Cats like Mike James and Jewnbug, and Tappis worked hard to fight that mentality. Mike James and RUA drove a wedge in that bullshit, that white supremacist bullshit, their groundwork was just amazing, out of this world.

JT: When did you first meet the Young Patriots?

BL: It was at the Church of the Three Crosses. There was a meeting, and it was the one recorded in the movie American Revolution II. After the crowd left, the Patriots were still there. We asked the Minister if he could let us have his office. We asked the Patriots if they could work with the Panthers and they said yes. I didn’t even tell Fred for the first three weeks of meeting with these cats. It wasn’t easy to build an alliance. I advised them on how to set up “serve the people” programs—free breakfasts, people’s health clinics, all that. I had to run with those cats, break bread with them, hang out at the pool hall. I had to lay down on their couch, in their neighborhood. Then I had to invite them into mine. That was how the Rainbow Coalition was built, real slow. Then I contacted Cha Cha Jimenez from the Young Lords.

Continue reading “The Original Rainbow Coalition: An Interview With Bobby Lee”