A woman working in a California shipyard during WWII.
Today, the idea of Labor brings to mind the end of summer, the beginning of the school year, and the start of the football seasons, but its meaning goes back to the 19th Century. It began with local unions using the day to celebrate a “workingman’s holiday”. It gained wide acceptance in 1894, when Congress passed a federal law to set aside the day. (It was seen as an appeasement to unions, after the bloody strikes of the time.)
Although we don’t see the same sort of celebrations for the holiday (union picnics, political speeches, parades) as we did in the past, we still take the day off as a reward for hard work. And we should remember to celebrate the people who have helped to make life better for others – what a better way to celebrate than to read one of these books about the history of labor in America? (Annotations are courtesy of the Library catalog and NoveList Plus. Titles with an * are highly recommended by me!)
American Workers, American Unions: The Twentieth Century by Robert H. Zieger and Gilbert Gall
- A history of American laborers from the beginnings of the twentieth century, through two world wars, to the technological revolution.
The Battle of Blair Mountain: The Story of America’s Largest Labor Uprising by Robert Shogan
- A national political correspondent for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times illuminates the war between union miners and their bosses in West Virginia in 1921, a conflict that eventual widened to involve federal troops.
Before Their Time: The World of Child Labor by David L. Parker
- Citing the millions of children who are working under dangerous and exploitative conditions worldwide, a visual tour of the daily lives of child laborers offers insight into how economic disadvantages and unscrupulous systems are perpetuating child labor practices.
Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century by Randy Shaw
- Describes the social changes Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers of America helped accomplish that have endured in the twenty-first century, including the building of Latino political power and the fight for environmental justice.
Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands by Katherine Benton-Cohen
- Chronicles the history of race relations in Cochise County, Arizona, focusing on Sheriff Harry Wheeler’s 1917 arrest and deportation of two thousand striking Mexican miners.
Child Labor: An American History by Hugh D. Hindman
- The author traces the history of child labor and reform in the US, drawing upon primary sources to portray this issue in six key industries, and examines the legacy of US child labor history for a global economy.
The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers Movement by Susan Ferriss and Ricardo Sandoval
- This companion volume to a PBS documentary reflects a vivid appreciation of how Chavez’s organizing activities, dating from 1962, enabled one of society’s most vulnerable worker groups to assert dignity, claim rights, and ultimately change a powerful industry’s whole way of doing business.
From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States by Priscilla Murolo
- A history of labor in the United States, capturing the full range of working people’s struggles, from indentured servants and slaves in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake to high-tech workers in contemporary Silicon Valley. (From the book’s jacket)
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck*
- The Joad family, Okie farmers forced from their dustbowl home during the Depression, try to find work as migrant fruitpickers in California.
Hard Work: The Making of Labor History by Melvyn Dubofsky
- An exploration of some of American labor’s central themes by a giant in the field, Hard Work is also a compelling narrative of how one scholar was drawn to labor history as a subject of study and how his approach to it changed over time.
Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Elliott J. Gorn
- Inspired by his life-long support for labor, Gorn presents a biography of Mary Jones (1837-1930), who as Mother Jones remains one of the best known and best loved organizers and agitators in the US. He recounts her rabble-rousing during strikes at coal mines, steel mills, railroads, textile factories, breweries, and other hot spots across the country.
Rekindling the Movement: Labor’s Quest for Relevance in the Twenty-First Century by Lowell Turner
- A distinguished group of authors examines this resurgence and the potential of American unions with sympathetic yet critical eyes. Experts from a wide variety of disciplines — industrial relations, political science, economics, and sociology — identify the central developments, analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the new initiatives, and assess the progress made and the prospects for the future.
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
- Based on his own experience as an electrician and mechanic, Crawford makes a case for the intrinsic satisfactions and cognitive challenges of manual work. The work of builders and mechanics is secure; it cannot be outsourced, and it cannot be made obsolete. Such work ties us to the local communities in which we live, and instills the pride that comes from doing work that is genuinely useful.
State of the Union: A Century of American Labor by Nelson Lichtenstein
- Lichtenstein provides a knowledgeable overview of the signal events since the Wagner Act of 1935, from unions’ identification with male-dominated heavy industries to their membership today, which consists predominantly of government and service workers and teachers.
Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by Dave Von Drehle*
- Triangle is the dramatic story of the fire that broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City in 1911. Within minutes the flames spread to consume the building’s upper three stories. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their deaths. The final toll was 146 people-123 of them women. It chronicles in harrowing detail the fire and gives an insightful look at how this tragedy transformed politics and gave rise to urban liberalism.
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel
- Studs Turkel records the voices of America. Men and women from every walk of life talk to him, telling him of their likes and dislikes, fears, problems, and happinesses on the job. Once again, Turkel has created a rich and unique document that is as simple as conversation, but as subtle and heartfelt as the meaning of our lives….