Both writing and teaching labor history have undergone dramatic changes in recent years. No longer do we focus mainly on the “great men” (albeit with a wink in the direction of Mother Jones), nor does our conception of leadership consist in decisions handed down from above. No longer is the story we tell almost exclusively that of efforts to gain a union.
Now we look also at the support networks people create for themselves both at work and in their homes and communities, at how these are affected by the nature of their work, and how these in turn condition their work lives. In addition to the strikes and large public confrontations, we look at the everyday resistances and accommodations that make up the majority of people’s lives at work.
Thus, issues of democracy and race and gender have come to the fore. The following are the best of the books available, suitable both for teacher background and high school student research. Nearly all, no matter their title, reflect these broader concerns, these newer sensitivities.
Where to Start
Who Built America?: Working People and the Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture and Society, American Social History Project, 1990, 1992, Pantheon. American history from the standpoint of workers. Volume One covers the conquest through 1877, and Volume Two extends to the present. Companion videos and student workbooks are available.
The Power in Our Hands: A Curriculum on the History of Work and Workers in the United States, William Bigelow and Norman Diamond, 1988, Monthly Review. Complete lesson plans and discussion of what to try to get across in teaching labor history. Teaches through activities that value struggle and democracy. Student handbook available.
Strike! Jeremy Brecher, 1972, reissued South End. Exciting tale, emphasizing workers as insurgents, both inside and outside of unions, from 1877 to the present.
The World of the Worker: Labor in Twentieth-Century America, James R. Green, 1980, Hill and Wang. A synthesis of broader social and labor history, integrating changes in the workplace with changes in the neighborhood and in patterns of political activism.
Bread and Roses: The Struggle of American Labor 1865-1915, Milton Meltzer, 1967, reissued Facts On File. Very useful for high school and younger. May be the easiest book on the list to read.
Overviews of Periods and Issues
America’s Working Women: A Documentary History — 1600 to the Present, Rosalyn Baxandall, Linda Gordon, Susan Reverby (eds), 1976, Vintage. Very useful collection of materials.
The Lean Years: A History of the American Worker, 1920-1933, Irving Bernstein, 1960, DaCapo. Along with the author’s The Turbulent Years, covering 1933-1941, a basic reference.
We Will Rise in Our Might: Workingwomen’s Voices from Nineteenth Century New England, Mary Blewett, 1991, Cornell. Rich cache of documents emphasizing the importance of gender in forming the industrial working class.
Working for Democracy: American Workers from the Revolution to the Present, Paul Buhle and Alan Dawley (eds), 1985, U of Illinois. Brief, suggestive essays on workers’ political understandings and involvements. Includes multiple chapters on women workers and black workers.
Industrialism and the American Worker, 1865-1920, Melvyn Dubofsky, 1975, AHM. Survey, aimed at students.
Black Workers: A Documentary History From Colonial Times to the Present, Philip Foner and Ronald Lewis, 1988, Temple. Very valuable resource.
Women and the American Labor Movement: From the First Trade Unions to the Present, Philip Foner, 1982, Free Press. Two volume, in-depth treatment.
The Harder We Run: Black Workers Since the Civil War, William Harris, 1982, Oxford. Survey and introduction to the issues.
Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, Jacqueline Jones, 1985, Basic. The history of Black women in America, from slavery to the present. Integrates community, workplace, and family issues.
Out to Work: The History of Wage Earning Women in the United States, Alice Kessler-Harris, 1982, Oxford. Integration of labor with women’s history.
The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sitdowns, Sidney Lens, 1973, Doubleday. Six decades of the major labor confrontations.
Labor Law for the Rank and Filer, Staughton Lynd, 1978, Singlejack/Charles H. Kerr. Brief, easily read accounts of each of the major labor laws, with their historical intentions and consequences.
The Fall of the House of Labor: The Workplace, the State, and American Labor Activism, 1865-1925, David Montgomery, 1987, Cambridge. Reconceptualization of this entire period, integrating changes in the workplace, in the neighborhoods, in the role of the state, and in worker response.
We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America, Barbara Wertheimer, 1977, Pantheon. Begins with a brief acknowledgement of Native American women, then carries the story, through lively narrative, till 1914.
American Labor Struggles: 1877-1934, Samuel Yellen, 1936, Pathfinder. The stories of ten major battles including Homestead, Lawrence, West Coast Longshore.
For Exploring in Greater Depth
Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class and Politics, 1863-1923, Eric Arnesen, 1991, Cambridge. The conditions enabling a powerful interracial solidarity.
The Haymarket Tragedy, Paul Avrich, 1986, Princeton. Best treatment of Haymarket and Chicago workers’ anarchist movement of the time.
Men, Women and Work: Class, Gender and Protest in a New England Shoe Factory, 1780-1910, Mary Blewett, 1988, U of Illinois. The sexual division of labor, and the participation of both sexes in labor struggle.
Steelworkers in America: The Nonunion Era, David Brody, 1960, reissued Harper & Row. The work process, the economic context and their consequences for how workers were and were not able to organize from the late 1880s to the 1920s.
Homestead — The Households of a Milltown, Margaret Byington, 1910, reissued Ayer. Community life and living conditions in a milltown.
Lawrence 1912: The Bread and Roses Strike, William Cahn, 1977, Pilgrim. Immigrants, primarily women, speaking many languages. How could this kind of a group get organized?
Forging a Union in Steel: Philip Murray, SWOC and the United Steel Workers, Paul Clark and Peter Gottlieb, 1987, ILR. Organizing the CIO in the 1930s.
Dishing It Out: Waitresses and Their Unions in the Twentieth Century, Dorothy Cobble, 1991, U of Illinois. During the major CIO organizing drives, waiting tables in America was a union job. What the waitresses adopted from the male unions and what they added.
Uprooted Children: The Early Life of Migrant Farm Workers, Robert Coles, 1970, U of Pittsburgh. Sympathetic study, written by a psychiatrist.
Life, Work and Rebellion in the Coal Fields: The Southern West Virginia Miners, 1880-1920, David Corbin, 1990, U of Illinois. How a strong sense of regional solidarity developed and was sustained. Important role of Black miners.
Working-Class Community in Industrial America: Work, Leisure and Struggle in Two Industrial Cities, 1830- 1930, John Cumber, 1979, Greenwood. The consequences of industrial decline and changeover to new industries in two New England manufacturing towns.
The Chinese in San Francisco: A Pictorial History, Laverne Mau Dicker, 1979 Dover. Not specific to workers, but contains useful pictures of life conditions, work on the railroads, and anti-Chinese racism.
Teamster Rebellion, Farrell Dobbs, 1973, Pathfinder. Along with Teamster Power, Teamster Politics and TeamsterBureaucracy. The rise and decline of a Minneapolis local led by revolutionary socialists, including the major strikes of 1934.
As Equals and As Sisters: Feminism, the Labor Movement and the Women’s Trade Union League of New York, Nancy Dye, 1981, U of Missouri. The early intersection of feminism and the labor movement.
The Emergence of a UAW Local: 1936- 1939, A Study in Class and Culture, Peter Freidlander, 1975, U of Pittsburgh. Based on oral history, an account and analysis of the early years of a Detroit auto worker local.
Feminism in the Labor Movement: Women and the United Auto Workers, 1935-1975, Nancy Gabin, 1990, Cornell. Both oral histories and archival research. Significant feminist struggles, both in and out of the workplace were played out inside the UAW.
Keeping the Faith: A. Philip Randolph, Milton P. Webster and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, 1925-1937, William H. Harris, 1991, U of Illinois. Maybe the best of a number of recent studies of Randolph and Black worker organizing.
Barons of Labor: The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the Progressive Era, Michael Kazin, 1987, U. of Illinois. Microcosm study of larger issues around craft unions.
Rebel Voices: An IWW Anthology, Joyce Kornbluh, 1984, Charles H. Kerr. Wonderful collection transmits IWW emphasis on creating alternative culture.
One Union in Wood: A Political History of the International Woodworkers of America, Jerry Lembcke and William Tattam, 1985, International. A vehicle for reevaluating the Communist Party role in building the CIO.
Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class and Community, 1880-1980, Ronald Lewis, 1987, U. of Kentucky. A study of the factors that have enabled Black miners to play a crucial role in U.S. labor history.
Labor’s War At Home: The CIO in World War Two, Nelson Lichtenstein, 1982, Cambridge. Crucial changes in the CIO during the course of the war.
The Pullman Strike: The Story of a Unique Experiment and of a Great Labor Upheaval, Almont Lindsey, 1942, U of Chicago. Paternal and authoritarian labor relations and the great strike of 1894 that resulted.
Working Lives: The Southern Exposure History of Labor in the South, Marc S. Miller (ed.), 1980, Pantheon. Brief, evocative articles, well illustrated.
Roll the Union On: A Pictorial History of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, H.L. Mitchell, 1987, Charles H. Kerr. Attempt to unionize sharecroppers and farmers in the South, Black and white together.
Beyond Equality: Labor and Radical Republicans, 1862-1872, David Montgomery, 1967, reissued U of Illinois. The Reconstruction era and its opportunities and challenges for the labor movement of that time.
Workers’ Control in America: Studies in the History of Work, Technology, and Labor Struggles, David Montgomery, 1979, Cambridge. Workers’ shop floor efforts to control their activities at work, from Reconstruction through the New Deal.
Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980, Margorie Murphy, 1990, Cornell. How public school teachers were unionized.
Reform, Labor and Feminism in the Progressive Era: Margaret Drier Robins and the National Women’s Trade Union League, Elizabeth Anne Payne, 1988, U of Illinois. These larger issues approached through a biographical study of a Chicago WTUL leader.
Black Labor in Richmond, 1865-1890, Peter Rachleff, 1989, U of Illinois. Black workers in a context of both race and class conflict.
Our Own Time: A History of American Labor and the Working Day, David Roediger and Philip Foner, 1989, Verso. The long struggle for a shorter working day.
The Rising of the Women: Feminist Solidarity and Class Conflict, 1880-1917, Meredith Tax, 1980, Monthly Review. The author explores why workplace struggles and the movement for women’s liberation, two concerns that seem intertwined, did not link together more firmly. She raises the same question in her historical novel, Rivington Street.
Biographies and Personal Memories
Words of Fire: The Life and Writings of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Rosalyne Baxandall, 1988, Rutgers. The story of an important organizer and activist.
Roughneck: The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983. Larger-than- life IWW organizer, whose more readily available autobiography is notoriously inaccurate.
Indignant Heart: A Black Workers Journal, Charles Denby, 1978, South End. Autobiographical exploration of the interconnection among civil rights struggles and struggles for democracy within the workplace and union.
Mary Heaton Vorse: The Life of an American Insurgent, Dee Garrison, 1989, Temple. A leading labor journalist during the first half of the century, whose life linked feminist and labor activism. Mary Heaton Vorse authored Labor’s New Millions on early CIO organizing, and Strike!, a novel based on the Gastonia Textile strike.
The Autobiography of Mother Jones, new edition, Charles H. Kerr. Funny, indignant, and an unparalleled account of organizing efforts early in the century.
Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir, Harvey O’Connor, 1964, Monthly Review. Lively account, by a participant, of Seattle General Strike of 1919.
Bread Upon the Waters, Rose Pesotta, 1944, reissued ILR. International Ladies Garment Workers Union vice-president gives her account of the 1930s.
Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, Nick Salvatore, 1983, U. of Illinois. Excellent biography of a major figure uniting labor and socialist history.
John L. Lewis: Labor Leader, Rober Zieger, 1988, Twayne. From his base in the Mineworkers to the break with the AFL, formation of the CIO and relationship with FDR.
Up to the Present
Rusted Dreams: Hard Times in a Steel Community, David Bensman and Roberta Lynch, 1988, U. of California. The economic and political context of plant closures on Chicago’s South side, how the decisions are made, and the consequences for workers and communities.
Death On The Job: Occupational Health and Safety Struggles in the United States, Daniel M. Berman, 1978, Monthly Review. A contemporary plea, incorporating the history of public policy around occupational health.
Building Bridges: The Emerging Grassroots Coalition of Labor and Community, Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello (eds.), 1990, Monthly Review. Case studies, from different viewpoints, of new local movements including both community and workplace-based constituencies.
Tunnel Vision: Labor, The World Economy and Central America, Daniel Cantor and Juliet Schor, 1987, South End. Brief history of AFL-CIO in U.S. foreign affairs, with suggestions for alternative principles.
Upheaval in the Quiet Zone: A History of Hospital Workers Union, Local 1199, Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg, 1989, U of Illinois. Unionization within a mostly female and increasingly Black and Latino workforce.
Detroit: I Do Mind Dying, Dan Georgakas and Marvin Surkin, 1975, St. Martin’s. The attempt to organize Black auto workers into a revolutionary union movement.
On Strike for Respect: The Clerical and Technical Workers’ Strike at Yale University (1984-1985), Toni Gilpin, Gary Isaac, Dan Letwin and Jack McKivigan, 1988, Charles H. Kerr. Major breakthrough based on innovative organizing among mostly female and minority workers.
On Strike at Hormel: The Struggle for a Democratic Labor Movement, Hardy Green, 1990, Temple. The P-9 strike in Minnesota in the 1980s built a national support network and took on the national union as well as the employer. Microcosm of some of the dilemmas and alternative approaches of our own time.
Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, Barbara Kingsolver, 1989, ILR. How ties among women enabled workers to sustain a difficult strike.
Rank and File Rebellion: Teamsters For a Democratic Union, Dan LaBotz, 1990, Verso. Long-running and increasingly successful struggle for democracy within the union and workplace.
A Troublemaker’s Handbook: How to Fight Back Where You Work — And Win!, Dan LaBotz, 1991, Labor Notes. Not strictly a history, but includes many brief case studies. Focus is on various current forms of worker and worker-community struggle.
The Fight Against Shutdowns: Youngstown’s Steel Mill Closings, Staughton Lynd, 1982, Singlejack/Charles H. Kerr. Takes the reader inside an effort by workers and their larger community to reopen a closed steel mill and prevent the closure of two others.
Taking On General Motors: A Case Study of the UAW’s Campaign to Keep GM’s Van Nuys Open, Eric Mann, 1989, UCLA Institute of Industrial Relations. Successful and instructive labor-community coalition. Author was one of the leaders.
Steelworkers Rank and File: Political Economy of a Union Reform Movement, Philip Nyden, 1984, Bergin and Garvey. An attempt to transform one of our bigger unions from within.
Digging Our Own Graves: Coal Miners and the Struggle Over Black Lung Disease, Barbara Smith, 1987, Temple. A rank and file movement that transformed its union and forced public recognition of occupational health concerns.
Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the IWW, Stewart Bird and Dan Georgakas, 1984, Lakeview. Interviews with IWW survivors. Some of the same interviews are seen in the movie The Wobblies.
Women At Work, Lewis Hines, Dover. Also Men At Work. Two separate volumes of powerful photographs spanning three decades earlier in the century.
Bye! American: Labor Cartoons, Huck and Konopacki, 1988, Charles H. Kerr. Or see their newer collection, Them. Useful in highlighting issues and alternatives.
Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers, Alice and Staughton Lynd (eds), 1973, reissued Monthly Review. Powerful oral histories. Participants were active from the 1930s to the present. Some of the women are featured in the film Union Maids.
The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker, Theresa Serber Malkeil, 1910, reissued ILR. Fictional account, to capture the spirit, of 1909 New York strike by mostly immigrant women. Written by Jewish labor activist and participant.
Working Classics: Poems in Industrial Life, Peter Oresick and Nicholas Coles (eds), 1990, U. of Missouri. Poems about industrial work and the lives of workers.
The Long Day: The Story of a New York Working Girl, Dorothy Richardson, 1905, reissued U of Virginia. Through her own story as a young, poor woman arriving alone in New York, explores the conditions and opportunities for women workers early in the century.
Salt of the Earth, Deborah Rosenfelt, 1979, Feminist Press. Michael Wilson’s screenplay of the 1954 movie, along with a follow up 25 years later on changes in gender roles in the community. Movie, about a strike in the Southwest, is strong on Mexican-American labor solidarity and the crucial role of workers’ wives. Banned in the fifties, it is again available.
Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the IWW, Salvatore Salerno, 1989, SUNY. How the IWW used songs, poems, cartoons, and other cultural expressions to spread its message.
Carry It On!: A History in Song and Picture of the Working Men and Women in America, Pete Seeger, 1985, Simon and Schuster. A gold mine of materials. Can be used with Pete Seeger recordings.
Mother Jones, Child Labor, Flint Sit-Down Strike, Cesar Chavez, and more. Larry Stevens has written a series of self-published readers’ theatre plays, aimed at the classroom and grounded in labor history. For sale through Stevens and Shea, P.O. Box 794, Stockton, CA 95201.
Labor in America, Foster Dulles and Melvyn Dubofsky, 1982, Davidson-Forum. Overview from colonial times to the present.
Labor Conflict in the United States: An Encyclopedia, Ronald Filippelli (ed), 1990, Garland. Chronologically organized accounts of 254 labor conflicts, ranging from a rebellion by indentured servants in 1616 to the present.
Labor in the U.S.A.: A History, Ronald Filippelli, 1984, Knopf. Directed to high school students.
History of the Labor Movement in the United States, 9 volumes, Philip Foner, International. Written over more than 40 years and still going.
Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, Herbert Gutman, 1976, Alfred A. Knopf. A seminal work that was the first U.S. labor history to move beyond trade unionism to look at the organization of workers as a product of social and cultural forces.
Labor history is not simply about big, public struggles, as many of the books above recognize. It is also about day-to-day, changing relations at work: with other workers, with bosses, and with the way the work itself is structured. Singlejack Books has a series of small books by workers about life on the job. They are very useful in getting at the story of the quiet adaptations and resistances that go on in the workplace. A Machinist’s Semi-Automated Life by Roger Tulin and Foundry Foreman, Foundrymen by Lloyd Zimpel are two of the nine I own and treasure. Distributed by Charles H. Kerr.
The American Postal Workers Union local in Connecticut has taken on the noble task of compiling an exhaustive bibliography which they make available to teachers and librarians. Theirs is approximately 10 times larger than this one (without, however, including a dozen or so books recommended here). Some care is necessary in using their frequently inaccurate bibli graphic data. The list of 800 – 900 books is organized alphabetically, by author. Write to Fred Kaltenstein, Treasurer, APWU, P.O. Box 885, Danbury, CT 06813.
As part of its annual Directory of Labor Education, Workers’ Education Local 189 publishes a resource section. This generally contains addresses for local labor history societies, specialized reading lists, and page after page of relevant films and videos. Write to Anne C. Green, President, Workers’ Education Local 189, 116 Oakdale, Akron, OH, 44302.