Subterranean Fire Study Guide


Sharon Smith’s book Subterranean Fire is an expansive look at the history of labor radicalism in the United States.  Here is a set of study questions to help guide your reading of the book.

Chapter 1: Are American Workers Different?

  1. What is the concept of American exceptionalism in terms of workers struggle in the U.S.?
  2. Why does Smith argue that this is a mostly false characterization?
  3. Are American workers bought off?

Chapter 2: The Peculiarities of American Capitalism

  1. How was slavery critical to the development of American capitalism?
  2. What are some ways that the U.S. ruling class used racism to its benefit?
  3. For decades, the American labor movement was divided on the question of “craft unionism” vs. “industrial unionism.” What are the differences between these and why did radicals fight for industrial unions?
  4. What are the challenges Smith raises to Roediger’s “wages of whiteness” theory?
  5. What has been the relationship between the Democratic party and organized labor?
  6. How has violence been deployed against both the labor movement and the radical movement in U.S. history?

Chapter 3: The Rise of the Labor Left, 1900-1930

  1. What was the attitude of the Socialist Party towards WWI?
  2. Describe the political orientations of Eugene Debs and Victor Berger. How could such different political viewpoints exist in the same party?
  3. Explain the politics of the IWW and anarcho-syndicalism. What are the limitations of these politics in Smith’s view?
  4. Why was the Communist Party formed?
  5. Why did many industrialists relocate to the South? What are the parallels of this movement to today’s economy?
  6. What was “Third Period” communism?

Chapter 4: Depression Decade: The Turning Point

  1. What effects did the New Deal have on the labor movement?
  2. What does it mean to say that “rank-and-file” workers led a strike? Why is this significant?
  3. How was the CIO formed? What made it different from the AFL?
  4. How did the Communist Party organize to fight racism in different parts of the country?
  5. What was the Communist Party’s “Popular Front” strategy?
  6. Why was the Flint sit-down strike important and what impacts did it have on the labor movement?
  7. What factors contributed to the labor movement’s decline as the 1930s came to an end?

Chapter 5: From World War to Cold War

  1. Why would national union leaders agree to a no strike pledge during the war?
  2. How did the German invasion of Russia impact the approach of the American Communist Party?
  3. Describe the impact of returning soldiers (both Black and white) on the labor movement.
  4. What was the significance of the Taft-Hartley act and what was the position of the Democratic Party on the act?
  5. What was the impact of McCarthyism on the labor movement?

Chapter 6: Social Contract?

  1. What is “business unionism”?
  2. What was the position of the AFL-CIO on the Vietnam War?
  3. Was the post-war economic boom good or bad for workers?
  4. What was behind the tension between sections of the labor movement and other left activists in the ’60s?
  5. What were some characteristics of the rank-and-file rebellion in the early ‘70s?

Chapter 7: The Employers’ Offensive

  1. What steps did Jimmy Carter take that set the stage for Reaganism?
  2. Describe some of the legal changes that helped to erode the welfare state and shift more profits to the rich in this period.
  3. What was the impact of the employers’ offensive on the Black working-class? On the Black middle-class?
  4. Why was the defeat of PATCO significant?

Chapter 8: The Neoliberal President Dismantles the New Deal

  1. What were the key policy changes enacted by Clinton?
  2. Why didn’t the AFL-CIO wage a more significant struggle during the Clinton years?
  3. What was the importance of the UPS strike in 1997?
  4. What was the relationship of the labor movement to the anti-globalization movement?

Chapter 9: Rule of the Neocons

  1. What was the economic experience for workers during the 2000s?
  2. What strategy does Smith advocate for a revival of the labor movement?