The best books about labour and workers fighting against all odds

Kari Lydersen Author Of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What It Says About the Economic Crisis
By Kari Lydersen

Who am I?

Fresh out of journalism school I stumbled on a strike at a machine shop in Pilsen, a neighborhood once home to Chicago’s most famous labor struggles, by then becoming a hip gentrified enclave. Drinking steaming atole with Polish, Mexican, and Puerto Rican workers in a frigid Chicago winter, I was captivated by the solidarity and determination to fight for their jobs and rights, in what appeared to be a losing battle. After covering labor struggles by Puerto Rican teachers, Mexican miners, Colombian bottlers, Chicago warehouse workers, and many others, my enthusiasm for such stories is constantly reignited -- by the workers fighting against all odds and the writers telling their stories, including those featured here.

I wrote...

Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What It Says About the Economic Crisis

By Kari Lydersen,

Book cover of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What It Says About the Economic Crisis

What is my book about?

Workers were suspicious; machinery had been strangely disappearing from the window factory on an island in the Chicago River. Then right before Christmas in 2008, the factory closed and they lost their jobs, their health insurance, and all their vacation time and benefits. The sudden closure violated labor law, and the owner was secretly moving the equipment in a criminal scheme that would later send him to prison. The workers refused to take it.

They occupied the factory and captured the public’s imagination at a period of anxiety and resurgent class consciousness in the early days of the economic crisis. The mostly immigrant and Black workers were the new face of the nation’s labor movement, and their scrappy independent UE union was willing to fight in ways mainstream labor unions no longer are. 

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Three Strikes: Labor's Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans

By Stephen Franklin,

Book cover of Three Strikes: Labor's Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans

Why this book?

In the early 1990s, Decatur, Illinois was a “time-battered” town, in the words of indefatigable labor journalist Steve Franklin, where factories hunkered amid grungy bars, a forlorn old motel, and prison. Unions had largely capitulated to global capital, as wages and jobs were slashed across the industrial heartland and families suffered in silence. In Decatur workers made a last stand at three eponymous employers – Firestone, Staley, and Caterpillar. Franklin – at the Chicago Tribune, one of the last labor journalists nationwide -- brings us evocatively to the front lines of these three strikes, weaving accessible socioeconomic analysis through the landscape of a bittersweet Bruce Springsteen song.

Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West

By Len Ackland,

Book cover of Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West

Why this book?

In the nondescript yet fortified facility on dusty ranchland at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, workers toiled in strange conditions making a mysterious product, unknown even to them. Turns out they were manufacturing plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons, and terrifying radioactive fires eventually laid bare the dire toll of the Cold War arms race on Colorado’s people and land. Chemical companies and the government conspired to avoid scrutiny, ensure obedience and keep illegally dumping toxic waste. Yet solidarity was born among workers caught between their need for a job and their fear and outrage at being used as throw-away cogs in a doomed war machine.

Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution

By Dan Georgakas, Marvin Surkin,

Book cover of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying: A Study in Urban Revolution

Why this book?

The name “Detroit” too often conjures images of poverty-porn: gorgeously crumbling buildings, post-apocalyptic urban decay, lost souls wandering cracked streets. Detroit: I Do Mind Dying shatters this image with unfettered energy. It chronicles the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the auto plants of the 1960s-1970s, a refreshing reminder of the power of intersectional labor organizing; a raw look at the racism of the mainstream labor movement; and a very human chronicle of the struggles and flaws of courageous everyday workers at this critical time and place in history.

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

By David Von Drehle,

Book cover of Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

Why this book?

This gripping, cinematic tale of a watershed workplace disaster immerses you in the grueling, gritty world of young immigrant – Jewish and Italian – women workers in early-20th century New York City. The horrific fire in a shirt-waist factory saw workers jumping to their deaths, revealing that “a huge and vulnerable world existed far above the street.” It created a cauldron of outrage and empathy, bare-knuckle politics, and leftist ideology leading to reform. You most remember the gumption and survival instinct of these young women, far from home without even the right to vote, coming together in the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and making history.

Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Strategies, Tactics, Objectives

By Robert Ovetz,

Book cover of Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle: Strategies, Tactics, Objectives

Why this book?

Despite so much depressing evidence to the contrary, professor Robert Ovetz argues that global workers' struggle is being reborn from the ashes of the old trade union movement. In this collection, international labor experts explain how Argentine truckers, Puerto Rican teachers, Chinese migrant laborers, Turkish delivery drivers, and other workers are analyzing geopolitical dynamics and seizing the levers of power in new and effective ways. Packed with analysis and charts like the “Credible Strike Threats Scorecard,” this is a gold mine for labor geeks who refuse to give up hope of overturning global capitalism.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Michigan, Illinois, and Colorado?

5,309 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Michigan, Illinois, and Colorado.

Michigan Explore 36 books about Michigan
Illinois Explore 51 books about Illinois
Colorado Explore 38 books about Colorado

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Song of Solomon, Detroit's Cold War, and The Virgin Suicides if you like this list.