The best books about labor unions

3 authors have picked their favorite books about labor unions and why they recommend each book.

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From the Jaws of Victory

By Matt Garcia,

Book cover of From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement

The literature on Cesar Chavez, the United Farm Workers, and their boycott campaigns is quite extensive. Matt Garcia’s is one of the best accounts of the Farm Workers’ strategy of boycotting grapes, lettuce, and other items to build power and win a union. What I especially appreciate about Garcia’s account is, first, his focus on the innovations in consumer activism brought about by the UFW. Organizers and workers made their boycott succeed by going into cities, living together in boycott houses, and appealing to urban consumers. Garcia’s accounts of boycott houses and organizers’ efforts from Los Angeles to Toronto and London are excellent. Second, Garcia doesn’t stray from critiquing the boycott tactic and noting places where it fell short – making this a cautionary tale for activists today.

Who am I?

I’m a Colorado-raised and California-based historian, professor, and writer. I recently published my first book, Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism, which explores the history of one of the longest-running consumer boycotts in American history – the boycott of Coors beer. In telling this particular history, I became fascinated with the boycott as a tool of protest and activism. The boycott is an iconic and regular feature of American politics and history, but it is often dismissed as ineffective or passive. The books on this list (as well as many others) have helped to convince me that the boycott and consumer activism can be powerful forms of solidarity-building and protest.


I wrote...

Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism

By Allyson Brantley,

Book cover of Brewing a Boycott: How a Grassroots Coalition Fought Coors and Remade American Consumer Activism

What is my book about?

In the late twentieth century, nothing united union members, progressive students, Black and Chicano activists, Native Americans, feminists, and members of the LGBTQ+ community quite as well as Coors beer. They came together not in praise of the ice-cold beverage but rather to fight a common enemy: the Colorado-based Coors Brewing Company. Wielding the boycott as their weapon of choice, activists targeted Coors for allegations of anti-unionism, discrimination, and conservative political ties. Over decades of organizing and coalition-building from the 1950s to the 1990s, anti-Coors activists molded the boycott into a powerful means of political protest.

I draw from a broad archive as well as oral history interviews with long-time boycotters to offer a compelling, grassroots view of anti-corporate organizing and the unlikely coalitions that formed in opposition to Coors. The story highlights the vibrancy of activism in the final decades of the twentieth century and the enduring legacy of that organizing for communities, consumer activists, and corporations today.

Household Workers Unite

By Premilla Nadasen,

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

Domestic and agricultural laborers were expressly excluded from the job protections and workplace regulations of the New Deal, including unemployment insurance, disability benefits, and Social Security. This had disproportionate effects on Black people who predominated in those sectors, compounded effects that continue to shape the exploitative and precarious conditions of domestic work today. Nadasen traces the history of Black women’s organizing for higher wages, better conditions, and recognition of the necessity and dignity of domestic workers from the 1950s to the current organizing of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).

While centering the stories of Black women, Nadasen is attentive to the racially and nationally diverse historical and contemporary landscapes of household laborers in the United States, including cleaners, nannies, elder care providers, and home health care workers.


Who am I?

Stories of the past are always about making claims to the present and future. These claims include which stories—whose stories—are persistently silenced, ignored, or made very hard to hear, see, and know in the dominant culture. I am a cultural historian of U.S. political history, broadly imagined. My work is almost always driven by the same question: Why didn’t I already know this? Quickly followed by: What has it meant that I didn’t know this? Invariably, the answers are found in the histories of women, gender, race, sexuality, class, and immigration.


I wrote...

Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America

By Micki McElya,

Book cover of Clinging to Mammy: The Faithful Slave in Twentieth-Century America

What is my book about?

When Aunt Jemima beamed from a box of pancake mix, many felt reassured. She was everyone's “Mammy,” the faithful slave who was content to cook and care for whites, no matter how grueling the labor or blatant the exploitation, because she loved them. This image of a nurturing black mother-figure ensconced—or trapped—within idealized white domesticity exercises a tenacious hold on the American imagination. 

The myth of “Mammy” warps popular understandings of slavery and its legacies while sustaining violent white supremacy, all through claims of affection. In 2021, the Aunt Jemima trademark was finally retired, but the myth holds on because so many refuse to let go of it and the cultural, political, and emotional work “Mammy” performs.

Dolores Huerta

By Sarah Warren, Robert Casilla (illustrator),

Book cover of Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers

I have long been a fan of stories about courageous women and I love it when I discover a book for young readers that brings to life an inspiring story of someone they may not know well (or at all). That’s exactly what Warren does in this book about Delores Huerta. The text works well for even the youngest readers. It promotes empathy by describing the poor living conditions of migrant children and their parents. Its themes are as relevant today as they were in Delores’ time. We need to care, we need to stand up for others, we need to be fair. It’s beautifully illustrated, too.


Who am I?

I am drawn to stories of women who display a fighting spirit, faith in themselves, and the drive to help others. Perhaps this is due to growing up during the women’s rights movement. So many women paved the way for me. Perhaps it was my upbringing. I was raised with six siblings - three brothers and three sisters – and my parents never thought that my sisters and I couldn’t do something just because we were girls. Combine these experiences with the fact that I love history and you can see why I love these stories. Now I get to write and share stories like these with young readers. Lucky me!


I wrote...

Headstrong Hallie!: The Story of Hallie Morse Daggett, the First Female Fire Guard

By Aimee Bissonette, David Hohn (illustrator),

Book cover of Headstrong Hallie!: The Story of Hallie Morse Daggett, the First Female Fire Guard

What is my book about?

Hallie Morse Daggett loved spending time outdoors among the forests in California’s Siskiyou Mountains. She wasn’t afraid of the bears, coyotes, and wildcats. But Hallie was afraid of fire and understood the threat it posed to the forests, wildlife, and people. She wanted to protect her beloved outdoors and decided she would work for the US Forest Service. But in the 1880s the Forest Service didn’t hire women, thinking they couldn’t handle the physical challenges of the work or the isolation. But the Forest Service didn’t know Hallie or how determined she could be.

This picture-book biography tells the story of Hallie Morse Daggett, the first woman “fire guard” hired by the US Forest Service, whose hard work and dedication led the way for other women to join the Forest Service.

Miguel Marmol

By Roque Dalton, Richard Schaaf (translator), Kathleen Ross (translator)

Book cover of Miguel Marmol

Dalton was a wonderful poet and radical activist tragically executed by his Salvadorean comrades in 1975 when they erroneously believed him to be working for the CIA. The Salvadorean left has a poor record in devouring its own in bouts of paranoia that attended the civil war of the 1980s. Marmol, who survived deep into old age, was a ringleader of an uprising in 1932 that briefly promised a peasant overthrow of a state controlled by an oligarchy of a dozen families. The uprising was repressed with such force that the military was able to retain political power for the next four decades. This book is beautifully written and translated wonderfully well by Richard Schaaf and Kathleen Ross.


Who am I?

My passion for Central American politics and history derived quite directly from the conflicts in the region from the late 1970s onwards. Previously I had worked in Bolivia, where I had studied as a doctoral student, and although many people still view Latin American countries as pretty homogenous, I quickly discovered that they are very far from being so. I had to unlearn quite a bit and acquire new skills, although luckily, indigenous languages are really only dominant in Guatemala. Now we can be rather less partisan although many injustices remain.


I wrote...

Power in the Isthmus

By James Dunkerley,

Book cover of Power in the Isthmus

What is my book about?

The political history covered here opens in 1820 when the Spanish forces had either left or were about to retreat from the region, and the republics of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica were forming. Panama, which became independent in 1903 with secession from Colombia, is often considered part of Central America. The book treats the region as a unit in the first five chapters and then considers each state individually in the next six, paying particular attention to the Nicaraguan Revolution. It doesn’t cover the last thirty years, some of which are considered in my shorter follow-up, The Pacification of Central America, Verso 1994.

The Last Great Strike

By Ahmed White,

Book cover of The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America

Once you’ve read Zinn, you are going to want to know more about the workers’ struggle. Among recent books, you can’t do better than Ahmed White’s book on this iconic struggle of the 1930s, when the steel companies massacred strikers and even the Roosevelt administration did nothing about it. Powerful story and very well-written.


Who am I?

I am a history professor at the University of Rhode Island who specialized in the labor and environmental history of the United States. I have dedicated my life to writing histories that people can read for inspiration in the fight for justice. We cannot change the present and future if we do not understand the systems of oppression that have created how we live today. I hope to continue contributing to shattering myths, providing hope, and charting paths for change through my writing.


I wrote...

A History of America in Ten Strikes

By Erik Loomis,

Book cover of A History of America in Ten Strikes

What is my book about?

A Kirkus Reviews best book of 2018, A History of America in Ten Strikes--published in the wake of the teachers' strike that swept the country in 2018--challenges all of our contemporary assumptions around labor, unions, and American workers. Labor historian Erik Loomis recounts ten critical workers' strikes in American labor history in "chapters [that] are self-contained enough to be used on their own in union trainings or reading groups" (Labor Notes), and adds an appendix detailing the 150 most important strikes in American history. These labor uprisings do not just reflect the times in which they occurred, but speak directly to the present moment, where American workers are still fighting for basic rights like a livable minimum wage.

Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle

By Robert Ovetz,

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

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.

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. 

Autoworkers Under the Gun

By Gregg Shotwell,

Book cover of Autoworkers Under the Gun: A Shop-Floor View of the End of the American Dream

Greg Shotwell was a longtime worker at General Motors and activist in the United Auto Workers who was notorious among executives in both the company and union for his rank-and-file newsletter, Live Bait and Ammo. This book is a collection of articles from that newsletter, and it’s a bitingly funny and ultimately heartbreaking account of autoworkers’ losing fight to maintain the rights and living standards that had made the union famous. 

Unlike the other books on my list, this book is the story of a defeat, but it is also a portrait of the generation of working-class fighters who kept alive the radical shop-floor traditions that are an essential component of any socialist vision. This is the book that made me want to become a writer. 


Who am I?

I’ve been a socialist for my entire adult life and a wise-ass for even longer. As a writer I’ve found a way to combine these two passions, using humor to introduce complex economic and political ideas to a new audience, as well as poke fun at politicians, CEOs, and even myself and my fellow activists. Not all of the books on this list use humor the way I do, but they have all helped me keep my sunny disposition by giving me inspiration that the socialist cause is more dynamic and multifaceted than ever. 


I wrote...

Socialism....Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation

By Danny Katch,

Book cover of Socialism....Seriously: A Brief Guide to Human Liberation

What is my book about?

Socialism…Seriously brings together the two great Marxist traditions of Karl and Groucho to provide an entertaining and insightful introduction to what the socialist tradition has to say about democracy, economics, and the potential of human beings to be something more than being bomb-dropping, planet-destroying racist fools.

Danny Katch uses humor and imagination to take an unflinching look at the rising threats posed by climate change, billionaire oligarchs, and the far right—and makes a compelling case that a socialist world is both necessary and possible. This book is for people who want to take a deeper look at what socialism is… but maybe not that deep.

Knocking on Labor's Door

By Lane Windham,

Book cover of Knocking on Labor's Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide

Labor unions played a key role in lifting millions of Americans—mostly white male industrial workers—into the middle class in the mid-twentieth century. The passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s opened access to unionized manufacturing jobs and led to new waves of labor activism by women and people of color, but these were undermined by political and economic shifts that eliminated millions of jobs in the late twentieth century. Windham shows how anti-union policies and practices made it more difficult for workers to organize and force employers to the negotiating table, which explains the persistence of racial and economic inequality in the twenty-first century. Like Foner’s Nothing But Freedom (mentioned above), the book provides ample evidence that nothing about this was foreordained—once again, those who set the rules of a more globalized economy did so in ways that allowed some people to prosper while others starved.


Who am I?

I’m a historian of the African American freedom struggle with more than two decades of experience researching and teaching on this topic. My work focuses especially on the connections between race and class and the ways Black people have fought for racial and economic justice in the twentieth century. I write books and articles that are accessible for general audiences and that help them to understand the historical origins of racism in the United States, the various forms it has taken, and the reasons why it has persisted into the present.


I wrote...

You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

By Greta de Jong,

Book cover of You Can't Eat Freedom: Southerners and Social Justice after the Civil Rights Movement

What is my book about?

I look at how African Americans in the rural South continued their struggles for racial and economic justice after the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s, which failed to do anything about mass unemployment and poverty caused by agricultural mechanization. Social justice activists pressured the federal government to pay attention to these problems and invest more in anti-poverty initiatives, while white supremacists blocked every effort to help displaced workers who were left without jobs, homes, or income. These conflicts helped shape the experiences of other Americans whose jobs were lost to deindustrialization and globalization later in the twentieth century, and their outcomes still affect our lives today.

Three Strikes

By Stephen Franklin,

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

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.

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. 

Mary Barton

By Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, Jennifer Foster (editor),

Book cover of Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life

Gaskell wrote this novel at a time when workers and their families in Britain’s industrial cities labored under intolerable conditions, and it was all too common for their suffering “to pass unregarded by all but the sufferers,” as Gaskell puts it in her preface. Her aim in writing the novel was to bring their plight to the attention of those better off—and to engender sympathy for their plight in the hearts and minds of readers. In the first half of the novel, she succeeds completely; it would be impossible for any reader to remain unmoved while reading of the lives of the Wilson family and the Barton family. The second half of the novel succeeds less fully, but the first half remains as powerful a piece of writing as I have ever read.


Who am I?

Like just about everyone, I was taught in childhood that we should think of others and help others. But then we start to hear different messages: “it’s naïve to think you can make the world a better place,” “you’re better off trying to help yourself—don’t waste your time with misguided attempts to help others,” "it’s sanctimonious to be a do-gooder,” and on and on it goes. The fact is, we can help to make the world a better place (without being sanctimonious). And we all should. We can volunteer, donate to good causes, eat less meat (or no meat at all), fly and drive less (or not at all!). And, as these authors have shown, the books we write can also make a real contribution.  


I wrote...

Animals

By Don LePan,

Book cover of Animals

What is my book about?

Animals is set in an indeterminate future in which virtually all the species that humans have for millennia used as food have become extinct; the world it creates is at once eerily foreign and disturbingly familiar.

“As gripping as it is important, LePan's brilliant novel tackles the largest moral issue of our time.” -Jonathan Balcombe, author of Second Nature: The Inner Lives of Animals

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