The labor movement, particularly in the early twentieth century, was a pivotal force in shaping U.S. culture and politics. First celebrated nationally as a federal holiday in 1894, the roots of Labor Day stretch back to the 1880s, and are grounded in the celebration of the American labor movement and the reforms, laws, and general prosperity that it brought to the American worker. The history of the labor movement in the U.S. is complicated, messy, and often bloody. From the federal minimum wage to the end of child labor to worker safety and the right to unionize, many of the advances we now take for granted – some of which, like unionization and the minimum wage, remain under constant attack – were gained through hard-fought battles both figurative and shockingly literal. The books below all provide necessary context to the struggles Labor Day is meant to honor and commemorate.
The Epic Story of Labor in America
In this sprawling and kaleidoscopic history, historian Philip Dray examines the monumental impact of the labor movement on America from the twentieth century triumphs of labor unions to the continued struggles – and dwindling influence – of unions and the labor movement today.
A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America
The Chicago Haymarket Affair was a pivotal moment in the history of the labor movement in the U.S. Beginning as a peaceful rally for the eight-hour work day in May 1886, the rally quickly descended into chaos after a dynamite bomb was thrown, killing seven police officers. The police opened fire. All told, at least eight people were killed with another sixty police officers and fifty civilians injured. With Death in the Haymarket, James Green examines both the events leading up to the rally and the hysteria that followed.
It may be one of John Steinbeck’s lesser-known works, but In Dubious Battle, a tale of striking migrant workers, is as powerful as any other work in the Steinbeck library. The author built a perch as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century telling the stories of the downtrodden and dispossessed with his elegiac and powerful prose. With In Dubious Battle, he turned his empathetic gaze to the plight of the worker and the forces at work both for and against them.
How the New Working Class Will Transform America
The American working class is, and has been, in a period of difficult transition. For various reasons, America’s diverse working class has now largely turned away from traditional manufacturing and moved in the direction of fast food, retail, and other service industries. In Sleeping Giant, Tamara Draut examines this shift, the marginalization of the American worker, and the nascent power this new working class is working to assert.
David Von Drehle
Triangle is the definitive account of one of the most horrifying disasters in U.S. labor history. On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City’s Greenwich Village and quickly spread to the factory’s upper floors. The owners had locked the doors to stairwells and exits to prevent thefts and unauthorized breaks by workers, and as a result, most workers were trapped in the flames. The final death toll was 146 people – most of them women. It remains one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history and led to the creation of labor laws and improved safety standards for factory workers across the nation.
The Jungle is unquestionably one of the most significant books of the labor movement. The novel grew out of Upton Sinclair’s investigations into the harsh conditions to which many immigrant workers were subjected. Sinclair’s intention was to shine a light on the exploitation of these workers. However, what grabbed the attention of the majority of readers and ultimately garnered the novel its infamy were the horribly unsanitary conditions of the meatpacking industry. The novel led to the creation of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. As Sinclair famously put it, “I aimed for the public’s heart, and by accident hit it in the stomach.”
The Devil Is Here in These Hills chronicles the longest and deadliest labor struggles in U.S. history. The roiling animosity between West Virginia’s coal miners and the corporations who controlled the mines would eventually spill into the streets and and ultimately culminated in a pitched battle on Blair Mountain in Logan County, West Virginia. The Devil Is Here in These Hills provides a nuanced look at a largely overlooked but pivotal struggle for labor rights in the early twentieth century.
Studs Terkel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 1985, made a career setting down compelling oral histories on subjects ranging from the Great Depression to World War II. With Working, Terkel turned to the American working class – from gravediggers to executives and everything in between – for a series of insightful interviews that provide a timeless portrait of the working lives of everyday people.
In Stayin’ Alive, historian Jefferson Cowie examines the political and economic upheavals that rocked American labor in the 1970s. Cowie takes a deep dive into the factors that led to the decline of union power and the beginnings of the shift from a manufacturing economy to a service-oriented economy, as well the impact those shifts had on the American worker and the middle class.
Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, and the Bitter Partnership That Changed America
Set against the backdrop of the steel industry during the Gilded Age, Les Standiford in Meet You in Hell recounts how the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892, one of the bloodiest strikes in U.S. history, drove a permanent wedge between two of the country’s biggest industrial titans – Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick. Meet You in Hell is a fascinating account of the greed, exploitation, and conditions that drove the earliest days of the labor movement.