U.S. Labor History

American labor history is filled with iconic moments that have stuck in the imagination of activists, if not always the general public: the Homestead and Pullman strikes in the 1890s, the Triangle Fire of 1911, the martyrdom of labor organizers like Frank Little and Joe Hill, Martin Luther King dying supporting a labor struggle in Memphis in 1968.

These are powerful stories, but labor history is much more than the story of big strikes and martyred activists. It’s a lot more than unions, too. It’s the story of workers throughout the country working in factories, fields, and homes. It’s paid and unpaid labor. Work is a human activity we almost all share—and if we do not share in it because we are unemployed, its absence is a big part of the story, too. The story of labor history is one of a tension between enslaved African labor and free white labor in the first two centuries after English colonization of North America, the stories of how a rapidly expanding capitalism oppressed both white and black workers in the post-Civil War period and their struggles for dignified lives. It’s the story of workers striking and dying for their rights in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

American labor history is also the story of workers fighting and winning basic human rights when the government finally stopped suppressing unions during the New Deal. Unfortunately, those same workers often sought to deny those rights to Asian, black, or Latino workers. They also sought to keep women in lower-paid jobs or working without pay in the home whether they wanted to or not. During the late twentieth century, not only did workers of color and women workers rise up to demand equality both on and off the job, but corporations also discovered they could escape their union contracts by closing factories and moving, first to the South and then overseas. All workers are facing the aftermath of deindustrialization, capital mobility, and resultant attacks on unions in the present.

The rise and fall of the American working class has led us to tell ourselves stories about the past to inspire us today. But American labor activists have often mythologized the past to no good end. Many of the books below seek to strip away the mythology so that we can learn from the past in order to craft a better labor movement in the present and future. Choosing ten books on American labor history is a hard task, but the selections below represent some of the best the field has to offer.

Places to Start

Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (1969)

Much romanticized and often misunderstood, the IWW has captured the imagination of those on the left for a century. Dubofsky’s sober analysis remains the most complete and decidedly unromantic overview of the IWW today. A must-read.

Joseph McCartin, Collision Course: Ronald Reagan, the Air Traffic Controllers, and the Strike That Changed America (2011)

McCartin provides an expert history of how Reagan destroyed the air traffic controllers when they struck in 1981, ushering in a new era of union-busting that continues today. Yet McCartin also details how the path toward that disastrous strike was one of workers taking over their own union and making radical demands for respect from the government.

Digging In

Kathleen Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (2007)

Barry gives readers the powerful stories of pioneering women workers who fought against sexual and labor discrimination simultaneously.

Jefferson Cowie, Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor (1999)

Where did our jobs go? Mostly overseas. Cowie helps contextualize this for us by showing that corporations have looked to migrate for cheap labor through the twentieth century. That certainly has not changed in the twenty-first.

Matt García, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement (2012)

Cesar Chavez is an icon. But mythology helps no one understand the past. Before 2010, books about the United Farm Workers took a hagiographic tone toward Chavez. That’s a mistake. Garcia’s book is the best of the new examinations of the UFW. Chavez was a deeply flawed union leader who actually damaged his union’s long-term chances at success.

New Moves

James Green, The Devil is Here in These Hills: West Virginia’s Coal Miners and Their Battle for Freedom (2015)

Even in popular narratives of the American freedom struggle, the experiences of workers are downplayed. Green demands that we center workers in this story. His tale of how West Virginia coal miners fought against oppression and murder by their bosses for decades, eventually led to the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest domestic insurrection since the Civil War. This book will force you to rethink the American story of freedom.

Bethany Moreton, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise (2009)

Moreton moved the literature on life under modern capitalism significantly ahead with her pioneering work taking the impact of Wal-Mart on the United States seriously, including how it transformed work in rural America.

Voices and Lives

Frederick Douglass, The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass (1845)

The slave narratives, autobiographies of ex-slaves, were stories of workers fighting for survival in an exploitative labor system that treated them as sub-human. None are more powerful or more important than Douglass’s.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001)

Ehrenreich’s undercover chronicle on low wage workers in the late 1990s is a powerful indictment of how recent decades have left low-wage workers behind, especially women workers victimized by the Clinton-era “welfare reform.”

Jack Metzgar, Striking Steel: Solidarity Remembered (2000)

Metzgar’s father was a U.S. Steel shop steward in the 1950s, and in this incredible book, he combines a thought-piece of what it meant to be a unionist during the nation’s peak period of union density, a mourning of the loss of working-class solidarity, and an excellent history of the 1959 steel strike. Powerful stuff.

Erik Loomis is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Rhode Island. He is the author of two recent books, Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe (The New Press) and Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests (Cambridge University Press). His work online has appeared in Dissent, The Boston Review, Salon, Truthout, and other publications. He blogs daily at Lawyers, Guns, and Money.