7 terrific books about America’s labor movement


These days, Americans are more likely to associate Labor Day with cookouts, the beginning of the school year and a much-needed three-day weekend. But Labor Day was envisioned as a celebration of the American worker.

So: How to spend a day off work? Well, you could look at it as an extra 24 hours to read — a chance to dive into the history of the labor movement in America. Here are seven great books, fiction and nonfiction, about labor unions and the fight for workers’ rights:

“The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon” by William M. Adler

One of the most beloved and controversial figures in labor history, Hill was a Swedish immigrant, songwriter and Industrial Workers of the World activist who was executed in 1915 for double murder. Adler’s biography of Hill posits what many of Hill’s admirers have said for a long time — that the activist was innocent of the slayings.


“Work Song” by Ivan Doig

Set in his beloved Montana, the 10th novel from the late Doig follows Morrie Morgan, a former teacher who travels to Butte, hoping to get rich from the town’s copper mines. Instead, he finds himself embroiled in a battle between a large mining company and its beleaguered employees.

“There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America” by Philip Dray

Dray’s history of the American labor union is certainly comprehensive — it’s more than 800 pages long, covering two centuries of labor history. He examines the importance of unions to the nation and looks at notable figures in the movement such as Mary Harris (“Mother”) Jones, Samuel Gompers and Karen Silkwood.

“Sometimes a Great Notion” by Ken Kesey

The author’s 1964 follow-up to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” tells the story of a loggers’ strike in Oregon from the point of view of a logging family who keep working during the labor action, drawing the ire of their fellow town residents. Paul Newman directed and starred in a film adaptation of the novel in 1971.

“The Crusades of César Chávez: A Biography” by Miriam Pawel

Former Times reporter Pawel won a California Book Award for her look at the life of Chávez, the labor activist and co-founder of the United Farm Workers. Her book is honest about Chávez’s dark side — he ruled his union with an iron fist and alienated a long string of friends and supporters — as well as his numerous accomplishments, bringing fieldworkers together against fierce opposition.

“In Dubious Battle” by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck’s 1936 novel, set during the Great Depression, is the story of two Communists who travel to Central California, hoping to convince a group of disgruntled apple pickers to strike. The book might have been inspired by an actual fruit worker strike in 1933 in Tulare County.

“Triangle” by Katharine Weber

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 killed more than 140 garment workers who were unable to escape the New York building, and the ensuing controversy led to the strengthening of labor unions. Weber’s 2006 novel follows the granddaughter of one of the survivors searching for the real story behind her grandmother’s accounts of the disaster.