Labor Activists and the American Labor Movement

Interested in learning more about the history of labor unions and the workers who fought for them? The books on this list examine important historical events in the labor movement and the diverse voices of activists who championed the American working class.


Compiled by:
Amber M. and Lizzie F.
An African American and Latinx History of the United States

Paul Ortiz
Adult Nonfiction - 305.8009 Ort

Spanning more than two hundred years, An African American and Latinx History of the United States is a revolutionary, politically charged narrative history, arguing that the "Global South" was crucial to the development of America as we know it. Scholar and activist Paul Ortiz challenges the notion of westward progress as exalted by widely taught formulations such as "manifest destiny" and "Jacksonian democracy," and shows how placing African American, Latinx, and Indigenous voices unapologetically front and center transforms US history into one of the working class organizing against imperialism. Drawing on rich narratives and primary source documents, Ortiz links racial segregation in the Southwest and the rise and violent fall of a powerful tradition of Mexican labor organizing in the twentieth century, to May 1, 2006, known as International Workers' Day, when migrant laborers--Chicana/os, Afrocubanos, and immigrants from every continent on earth--united in resistance on the first "Day Without Immigrants." As African American civil rights activists fought against Jim Crow laws and Mexican labor organizers warred against the suffocating grip of capitalism, Black and Spanish-language newspapers, abolitionists, and Latin American revolutionaries coalesced around movements built between people from the United States and people from Central America and the Caribbean. And in stark contrast to the resurgence of "America first" rhetoric, Black and Latinx intellectuals and organizers today have urged the United States to build bridges of solidarity with the nations of the America. Incisive and timely, this bottom-up history, told from the interconnected vantage points of Latinx and African Americas, reveals the radically different ways that people of the diaspora have addressed issues still plaguing the United States today, and it offers a way forward in the continued struggle for universal civil rights.


Angela Davis: An Autobiography

Angela Davis
Adult Nonfiction - 921 Davis Dav

The political activist reflects upon the people and incidents that have influenced her life and commitment to global liberation of the oppressed.


Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor

Steven Greenhouse
Adult Nonfiction - 331.8809 Gre

From the longtime New York Times labor correspondent comes an in-depth look at working men and women in America, the challenges they face, and how they can be re-empowered.


Beyond $15: Immigrant Workers, Faith Activists, and the Revival of the Labor Movement

Jonathan D. Rosenblum
Adult Nonfiction – 331.6209 Ros

The inside story of the first successful $15 minimum wage campaign that renewed a national labor movement and gained national recognition. The campaign emerged from an unlikely coalition that first united over the right of Muslim airport workers to pray. At stake was not just money but justice: whether the airport economy would serve the needs of everyone who made it work.


Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America

James Green
Adult Nonfiction - 977.311 Gre

On May 4, 1886, a bomb exploded at a Chicago labor rally, wounding dozens of policemen, seven of whom eventually died. Coming in the midst of the largest national strike Americans had ever seen, the bombing created mass hysteria and led to a sensational trial, which culminated in four controversial executions. The trial seized headlines across the country, created the nation's first Red scare and dealt a blow to the labor movement from which it would take decades to recover. Historian Green recounts the rise of the first great labor movement in the wake of the Civil War and brings to life the epic twenty-year battle for the eight-hour workday. He also gives us a portrait of Chicago, the Midwestern powerhouse of the Gilded Age. Throughout, we are reminded of the increasing power of newspapers as they stirred up popular fears of the immigrants and radicals who led the unions.


The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers' Movement

Stanley Aronowitz
Adult Nonfiction - 331.8809 Aro

Union membership in the United States has fallen below 11 percent, the lowest rate since before the New Deal. Longtime scholar of the American union movement Stanley Aronowitz argues that the labor movement as we have known it for most of the last 100 years is effectively dead. And he asserts that this death has been a long time coming--the organizing principles chosen by the labor movement at midcentury have come back to haunt the movement today. In an expansive survey of new initiatives, strikes, organizations and allies Aronowitz analyzes the possibilities of labor's renewal, and sets out a program for a new, broad, radical workers' movement.


The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America

Rick Wartzman
Adult Nonfiction – 331.702 War

In this richly detailed and eye-opening book, Rick Wartzman chronicles the erosion of the relationship between American companies and their workers. By tracing the ups and downs of four corporate icons over seventy years, Wartzman illustrates just how much has been lost: job security and steadily rising pay, guaranteed pensions, robust health benefits, and much more.


Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical

Jacqueline Jones
Adult Nonfiction - 921 Parsons Jon

Goddess of Anarchy is the biography of the formidable radical activist, writer, and orator Lucy Parsons (1853-1942), also known as Lucia Eldine Gonzalez Parsons, whose long life was entwined with the major radical labor struggles of her turbulent era. Born to an enslaved woman in Virginia in 1851, Parsons became the wife of Confederate veteran and anarchist organizer Albert R. Parsons, who was unjustly imprisoned and eventually hanged in 1887 for his alleged role in the Haymarket bombing in Chicago. After Albert's imprisonment and death, Parsons forged her own career as orator and labor agitator, editor, free-speech activist, essayist, fiction writer, publisher, and political commentator. A fearless advocate of First Amendment rights, a founding member of the Socialist Party of America in 1900, and a cofounder of the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, Parsons was one of only a handful of women and the only African American of her era to speak regularly to large crowds throughout the nation. Parsons was a thoughtful critic of Gilded Age America, but also well-known for her rhetorical provocations. She worked closely with, or bitterly against, other labor agitators of her day, including Eugene Debs and Emma Goldman, with whom she had a feud about the sexual liberation of women. And yet Lucy Parsons' life was shrouded in contradictions, marked by a series of traumas and personal tragedies. Historian Jacqueline Jones presents here a nuanced portrait of Parsons, reckoning with all of her paradoxes--her consistent advocacy of violence, her made-up Hispanic-Indian identity, and her refusal to acknowledge her African descent and the plight of African-Americans.


Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People Who Make this Country Work

Jeanne Marie Laskas
Adult Nonfiction – 305.562 Las

Award-winning journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas reveals “enlightening, entertaining, and often poignant” profiles of America's working class—the forgotten men and women who make our country run. She explores hidden worlds across American including an Alaskan oil rig, a migrant labor camp in Maine, the air traffic control center at LaGuardia Airport in New York, a beef ranch in Texas, a landfill in California, a long-haul trucker in Iowa, a gun shop in Arizona, and the Cincinnati Ben-Gals cheerleaders, mere footnotes in the moneymaking spectacle that is professional football.


Household Workers Unite: The Untold Story of African American Women Who Built a Movement

Premilla Nadasen
Adult Nonfiction – 331.4781 Nad

"Scholar/activist Nadasen showcases the stories of African American women who helped organize domestic workers from the 1950s through the 1970s. Experience firsthand accounts from the women who embodied tactics like remaking the public image of domestics, using public spaces to organize, and employing storytelling to galvanize the need for change." —Kirkus


Jane Crow: The Life of Pauli Murray

Rosalind Rosenberg
Adult Nonfiction - 921 Murray Ros

Throughout her prodigious life, activist and lawyer Pauli Murray systematically fought against all arbitrary distinctions in society, channeling her outrage at the discrimination she faced to make America a more democratic country. In this definitive biography, Rosalind Rosenberg offers a poignant portrait of a figure who played pivotal roles in both the modern civil rights and women's movements. A mixed-race orphan, Murray grew up in segregated North Carolina before escaping to New York, where she attended Hunter College and became a labor activist in the 1930s. When she applied to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where her white great-great-grandfather had been a trustee, she was rejected because of her race. She went on to graduate first in her class at Howard Law School, only to be rejected for graduate study again at Harvard University this time on account of her sex. Undaunted, Murray forged a singular career in the law. In the 1950s, her legal scholarship helped Thurgood Marshall challenge segregation head-on in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. When appointed by Eleanor Roosevelt to the President's Commission on the Status of Women in 1962, she advanced the idea of Jane Crow, arguing that the same reasons used to condemn race discrimination could be used to battle gender discrimination. In 1965, she became the first African American to earn a JSD from Yale Law School and the following year persuaded Betty Friedan to found an NAACP for women, which became NOW. In the early 1970s, Murray provided Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the argument Ginsburg used to persuade the Supreme Court that the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution protects not only blacks but also women - and potentially other minority groups - from discrimination. By that time, Murray was a tenured history professor at Brandeis, a position she left to become the first black woman ordained a priest by the Episcopal Church in 1976. Murray accomplished all this while struggling with issues of identity. She believed from childhood she was male and tried unsuccessfully to persuade doctors to give her testosterone. While she would today be identified as transgender, during her lifetime no social movement existed to support this identity. She ultimately used her private feelings of being "in-between" to publicly contend that identities are not fixed, an idea that has powered campaigns for equal rights in the United States for the past half-century.


The Jungle

Upton Sinclair
Adult Fiction – Sinclai

The Jungle explores a Lithuanian immigrant’s experience working in Chicago's meat packing industry during the early 20th century. The book exposed appalling working conditions, dehumanization of workers, brutal treatment of animals, as well as the health risks created by unsanitary stockyards and meatpacking facilities. Sinclair's novel sparked public outrage towards the meatpacking industry. The book made such impact it led to legislation regulating the food and drug industries in America.


Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America

Daniel Katz, Richard A. Greenwald
Adult Nonfiction – 331.88 Lab

In an era when workers are in desperate straits, labor historians Katz (All Together Different) and Greenwald offer a passionate and thought-provoking collection of original essays that focuses on the prospects for empowering labor in the U.S.  With such topics as how Wal-Mart transformed the labor market, the need to embrace green jobs, and the potential for reframing labor rights as a moral issue on college campuses, this cogent, varied, and accessible collection has much to offer union leaders, social advocates, and all those curious about the future of the labor movement. —Publishers Weekly


The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon

William M. Adler
Adult Nonfiction – 780.92 Hill Adl

In 1914, Joe Hill, the prolific songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies), was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, igniting international controversy. In the first major biography of Hill, Adler explores his extraordinary life and presents persuasive evidence of his innocence. Hill would become organized labor's most venerated martyr—and a hero to folk singers such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.


Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America

Elliott J. Gorn
Adult Nonfiction – 921 Jones Gor

"Her rallying cry was famous: 'Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.' A century ago, Mother Jones was a celebrated organizer and agitator, the very soul of the modern American labor movement. At coal strikes, steel strikes, railroad, textile, and brewery strikes, Mother Jones was always there, stirring the workers to action and enraging the powerful. In this first biography of 'the most dangerous woman in America,' Elliott J. Gorn proves why, in the words of Eugene V. Debs, Mother Jones 'has won her way into the hearts of the nation's toilers, and . . . will be lovingly remembered by their children and their children's children forever.'" —Amazon


Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story

David Maraniss
Adult Nonfiction - 977.434 Mar

As David Maraniss captures it with power and affection, Detroit summed up America's path to music and prosperity that was already past history. It's 1963 and Detroit is on top of the world. The city's leaders are among the most visionary in America: Grandson of the first Ford; Henry Ford II; influential labor leader Walter Reuther; Motown's founder Berry Gordy; the Reverend C.L. Franklin and his daughter, the amazing Aretha; Governor George Romney, Mormon and Civil Rights advocate; super car salesman Lee Iacocca; Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a Kennedy acolyte; Police Commissioner George Edwards; Martin Luther King. It was the American auto makers' best year; the revolution in music and politics was underway. Reuther's UAW had helped lift the middle class. The time was full of promise. The auto industry was selling more cars than ever before and inventing the Mustang. Motown was capturing the world with its amazing artists. The progressive labor movement was rooted in Detroit with the UAW. Martin Luther King delivered his 'I Have a Dream' speech there two months before he made it famous in the Washington March. Once in a Great City shows that the shadows of collapse were evident even then. Before the devastating riot. Before the decades of civic corruption and neglect, and white flight. Before people trotted out the grab bag of Rust Belt infirmities-- from harsh weather to high labor costs-- and competition from abroad to explain Detroit's collapse, one could see the signs of a city's ruin. Detroit at its peak was threatened by its own design. It was being abandoned by the new world. Yet so much of what Detroit gave America lasts.


Strike!: The Farm Workers' Fight for Their Rights

Larry Dane Brimnor
Adult Nonfiction - 331.89283 Bri

In 1965, as the grapes in California’s Coachella Valley were ready to harvest, migrant Filipino American workers—who picked and readied the crop for shipping—negotiated a wage of $1.40 per hour, the same wage growers had agreed to pay guest workers from Mexico. But when the Filipino grape pickers moved north to Delano, in the Central Valley, and again asked for $1.40 an hour, the growers refused. The ensuing conflict set off one of the longest and most successful strikes in American history. In Strike!, award-winning author Larry Dane Brimner dramatically captures that story. Brimner, a master researcher, fills this riveting account of the strike and its aftermath with the words of migrant workers, union organizers, and grape growers, as well as archival images that capture that first strike in 1965 and the ones that subsequently followed. Includes an author’s note, bibliography, and source notes.


There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America

Philip Dray
Adult Nonfiction – 331.88 Dra

"From the nineteenth-century textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, to the triumph of unions in the twentieth century and their waning influence today, the contest between labor and capital for the American bounty has shaped our national experience. In this stirring new history, Philip Dray shows us the vital accomplishments of organized labor and illuminates its central role in our social, political, economic, and cultural evolution. His epic, character-driven narrative not only restores to our collective memory the indelible story of American labor, it also demonstrates the importance of the fight for fairness and economic democracy, and why that effort remains so urgent today." —Amazon


Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

David Von Drehle
Adult Nonfiction – 974.71 Vo

"The Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City became the deadliest workplace in American history when fire broke out on the premises on March 25, 1911. Within about 15 minutes the blaze killed 146 workers—most of them immigrant Jewish and Italian women in their teens and early 20s. Journalist Von Drehle explains the sociopolitical context in which the fire occurred and the subsequent successful push for industry reforms, but is at his best in his moment-by-moment account of the fire." —Publisher’s Weekly