People around the globe are celebrating the accomplishments of the Labor Movement today for International Workers’ Day, also known as May Day. We owe the modern 8-hour workday, weekends, and more to the bargaining efforts and organizing of unions.
Today I’m sharing a list of 7 books to read for International Workers’ Day and learn more about the history of labor and how you can get more involved!
- History of International Workers’ Day
- 7 Books to Read for International Workers’ Day
- Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor by Kim Kelly
- On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union by Daisy Pitkin
- A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis
- The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
- No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey
- Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity by Micah Uetricht
- From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States by Priscilla Murolo, Joe Sacco (Illustrator)
- What You Can Do To Support Workers’ Rights
- Bookshop List
- Let’s Chat!
History of International Workers’ Day
Also known as May Day, International Workers’ Day was first established in 1889 and commemorates the historic struggles and gains made by workers and the labor movement. The day is observed in many countries on May 1 and at the beginning of September in the United States and Canada.
In 1889 an international federation of socialist groups and trade unions designated May 1 as a day in support of workers, in commemoration of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago (1886). Five years later, U.S. Pres. Grover Cleveland, uneasy with the socialist origins of Workers’ Day, signed legislation to make Labor Day—already held in some states on the first Monday of September—the official U.S. holiday in honour of workers. Canada followed suit not long afterward.Britannica.com article (emphasis mine)
(As you can see, socialism was considered a dirty word even in 1894, long before McCarthyism!)
One of my favorite things to come out of the past couple years is the increase in labor organizing in the United States. The pandemic has served as a reset for the working class and the Great Resignation indicates the workers have more bargaining power than in the post as business scramble to attract and retain employees (and try to entice them back into the office).
Amazon and Starbucks are in the news as their employees overwhelmingly vote to form a union amid illegal and relentless union busting. After years of decline, unions are more relevant than ever and these books will show the power of collective bargaining.
7 Books to Read for International Workers’ Day
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Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor by Kim Kelly
Publisher: Atria/One Signal Publishers • Publication Date: April 26, 2022 • Genre: Nonfiction • Pages: 448
A revelatory and inclusive history of the American labor movement, from independent journalist and Teen Vogue labor columnist Kim Kelly.
Freed Black women organizing for protection in the Reconstruction-era South. Jewish immigrant garment workers braving deadly conditions for a sliver of independence. Asian American fieldworkers rejecting government-sanctioned indentured servitude across the Pacific. Incarcerated workers advocating for basic human rights and fair wages. The queer Black labor leader who helped orchestrate America’s civil rights movement. These are only some of the working-class heroes who propelled American labor’s relentless push for fairness and equal protection under the law.
The names and faces of countless silenced, misrepresented, or forgotten leaders have been erased by time as a privileged few decide which stories get cut from the final copy: those of women, people of color, LGBTQIA people, disabled people, sex workers, prisoners, and the poor. In this assiduously researched work of journalism, Teen Vogue columnist and independent labor reporter Kim Kelly excavates that history and shows how the rights the American worker has today—the forty-hour workweek, workplace-safety standards, restrictions on child labor, protection from harassment and discrimination on the job—were earned with literal blood, sweat, and tears.
Fight Like Hell comes at a time of economic reckoning in America. From Amazon’s warehouses to Starbucks cafes, Appalachian coal mines to the sex workers of Portland’s Stripper Strike, interest in organized labor is at a fever pitch not seen since the early 1960s.
Inspirational, intersectional, and full of crucial lessons from the past, Fight Like Hell shows what is possible when the working class demands the dignity it has always deserved.
On the Line: A Story of Class, Solidarity, and Two Women’s Epic Fight to Build a Union by Daisy Pitkin
Publisher: Algonquin Books • Publication Date: March 29, 2022 • Genre: Nonfiction • Pages: 288
On the Line takes us inside a bold five-year campaign to bring a union to the dangerous industrial laundry factories of Phoenix, Arizona. The fight is led by two courageous women: Daisy Pitkin, a young labor organizer, and Alma, a second-shift immigrant worker who risks her livelihood fighting for safer working conditions. On the Line illuminates the harsh realities that workers in these factories face—routine exposure to biohazardous waste, surgical tools left in hospital sheets, and overheating machinery—as well as the ways broken US labor law makes it nearly impossible for them to fight back.
Forged in the flames of a vicious anti-union crusade and a grueling legal battle, the relationships that grow between Daisy, Alma, and the other factory workers show how a union, at its best, can reach beyond the workplace and form a solidarity so powerful that it can transcend friendship and transform communities. But when political strife divides the union, and her bond with Alma along with it, Daisy is forced to reflect on her own position of privilege and the power imbalances inherent in any top-down organizing movement.
In the social tradition of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Stephanie Land’s Maid, or Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and capturing the deeply personal nature of organizing, On the Line offers an exhilarating and long overdue look at the modern-day labor movement, how difficult it is to bring about social change, and why we can’t afford to stop trying. At this moment, when interest in collective action is rising, On the Line is a vital contribution to our national conversation.
A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis
Publisher: New Press • Publication Date: October 2, 2018 • Genre: Nonfiction • Pages: 288
“Entertaining, tough-minded, strenuously argued.”
A thrilling and timely account of ten moments in history when labor challenged the very nature of power in America, by the author called “a brilliant historian” by The Progressive magazine
Powerful and accessible, A History of America in Ten Strikes challenges all of our contemporary assumptions around labor, unions, and American workers. In this brilliant book, labor historian Erik Loomis recounts ten critical workers’ strikes in American labor history that everyone needs to know about (and then provides an annotated list of the 150 most important moments in American labor history in the appendix). From the Lowell Mill Girls strike in the 1830s to Justice for Janitors in 1990, these labor uprisings do not just reflect the times in which they occurred, but speak directly to the present moment.
For example, we often think that Lincoln ended slavery by proclaiming the slaves emancipated, but Loomis shows that they freed themselves during the Civil War by simply withdrawing their labor. He shows how the hopes and aspirations of a generation were made into demands at a GM plant in Lordstown in 1972. And he takes us to the forests of the Pacific Northwest in the early nineteenth century where the radical organizers known as the Wobblies made their biggest inroads against the power of bosses. But there were also moments when the movement was crushed by corporations and the government; Loomis helps us understand the present perilous condition of American workers and draws lessons from both the victories and defeats of the past.
In crystalline narratives, labor historian Erik Loomis lifts the curtain on workers’ struggles, giving us a fresh perspective on American history from the boots up.
Lowell Mill Girls Strike (Massachusetts, 1830-40)
Slaves on Strike (The Confederacy, 1861-65)
The Eight-Hour Day Strikes (Chicago, 1886)
The Anthracite Strike (Pennsylvania, 1902)
The Bread and Roses Strike (Massachusetts, 1912)
The Flint Sit-Down Strike (Michigan, 1937)
The Oakland General Strike (California, 1946)
Lordstown (Ohio, 1972)
Air Traffic Controllers (1981)
Justice for Janitors (Los Angeles, 1990)
The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore
Publisher: Sourcebooks • Publication Date: May 2, 2017 • Genre: Nonfiction • Pages: 479
The Curies’ newly discovered element of radium makes gleaming headlines across the nation as the fresh face of beauty, and wonder drug of the medical community. From body lotion to tonic water, the popular new element shines bright in the otherwise dark years of the First World War.
Meanwhile, hundreds of girls toil amidst the glowing dust of the radium-dial factories. The glittering chemical covers their bodies from head to toe; they light up the night like industrious fireflies. With such a coveted job, these “shining girls” are the luckiest alive—until they begin to fall mysteriously ill.
But the factories that once offered golden opportunities are now ignoring all claims of the gruesome side effects, and the women’s cries of corruption. And as the fatal poison of the radium takes hold, the brave shining girls find themselves embroiled in one of the biggest scandals of America’s early 20th century, and in a groundbreaking battle for workers’ rights that will echo for centuries to come.
Written with a sparkling voice and breakneck pace, The Radium Girls fully illuminates the inspiring young women exposed to the “wonder” substance of radium, and their awe-inspiring strength in the face of almost impossible circumstances. Their courage and tenacity led to life-changing regulations, research into nuclear bombing, and ultimately saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age by Jane F. McAlevey
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA • Publication Date: October 11, 2016 • Genre: Nonfiction • Pages: 272
In No Shortcuts, Jane McAlevey argues that progressives can win, but lack the organized power to enact significant change, to outlast their bosses in labor fights, and to hold elected leaders accountable. Drawing upon her experience as a scholar and longtime organizer in the student, environmental, and labor movements, McAlevey examines cases from labor unions and social movements to pinpoint the factors that helped them succeed – or fail – to accomplish their intended goals. McAlevey makes a compelling case that the great social movements of previous eras gained their power from mass organizing, a strategy today’s progressives have mostly abandoned in favor of shallow mobilization or advocacy. She ultimately concludes that, in order to win, progressive movements need strong unions built from bottom-up organizing strategies that place the power for change in the hands of workers and ordinary people at the community level.
Beyond the concrete examples in this book, McAlevey’s arguments have direct implications for anyone involved in organizing for social change. Much more than cogent analysis, No Shortcuts explains exactly how progressives can go about rebuilding powerful movements at work, in our communities, and at the ballot box.
Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity by Micah Uetricht
Publisher: Verso • Publication Date: March 11, 2014 • Genre: Nonfiction • Pages: 128
The teachers took on the bipartisan, free market school reform agenda that is currently exacerbating inequality in education and waging war on teachers’ livelihoods. In the age of austerity, when the public sector is under attack, Chicago teachers fought back—and won.
The strike was years in the making. Chicago teachers spent a long time building a grassroots movement to educate and organize the entire union membership. They stood up against hostile mayors, billionaire-backed reformers out to destroy unions, and even their own intransigent union leadership, to take militant action. The Chicago protest has become a model for how reforms to the school system can be led by teachers and communities. It offers inspiration for workers looking to create democratic, fighting unions. Strike for America is the story of this movement and how it triumphed in the defining struggle for workers today.
From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor in the United States by Priscilla Murolo, Joe Sacco (Illustrator)
Publisher: New Press • Publication Date: January 1, 2003 • Genre: Nonfiction • Pages: 384
Praised for its “impressive even-handedness”, From the Folks Who Brought You the Weekend has set the standard for viewing American history through the prism of working people (Publishers Weekly, starred review). From indentured servants and slaves in seventeenth-century Chesapeake to high-tech workers in contemporary Silicon Valley, the book ” puts] a human face on the people, places, events, and social conditions that have shaped the evolution of organized labor”, enlivened by illustrations from the celebrated comics journalist Joe Sacco (Library Journal).
Now, the authors have added a wealth of fresh analysis of labor’s role in American life, with new material on sex workers, disability issues, labor’s relation to the global justice movement and the immigrants’ rights movement, the 2005 split in the AFL-CIO and the movement civil wars that followed, and the crucial emergence of worker centers and their relationships to unions. With two entirely new chapters–one on global developments such as offshoring and a second on the 2016 election and unions’ relationships to Trump–this is an “extraordinarily fine addition to U.S. history that] could become an evergreen . . . comparable to Howard Zinn’s award-winning A People’s History of the United States” (Publishers Weekly).
“A marvelously informed, carefully crafted, far-ranging history of working people.” –Noam Chomsky
What You Can Do To Support Workers’ Rights
If the pandemic and Great Resignation have taught us anything, it’s that there’s power in numbers and solidarity. Employers are scrambling to entice employees to return the office and are looking for ways to keep and attract employees when
- Talk about your salary with coworkers. Inequities in pay are rampant and you’ll never know if you are underpaid if you don’t walk about wages.
- Tell Amazon to recognize and negotiate with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU)
- Vote for representatives who are pro-union and pro-workers as opposed to beholden to corporations.
- Join a union if your workplace has one, or consider organizing to improve working conditions for all.
- Help support strike funds if you’re financially able to do so.
- If you’re in the US, contact your legislators and tell them to fund the NLRB! There are bills being considered in the House and Senate – you can use @ResistBot to help email your legislators!
- Follow @JortsTheCat (unbuttered) for not only wholesome content but also to stay up to date on union activity.
- Read books about the labor movement!
The publishing industry is always focused on the new and shiny releases, typically ceasing promotion within a week of the book birthday. I hope that this list brought some new books to your attention and I hope you are able to support the ones you’re interested in!
Which books about labor organizing have you read and would recommend? Let’s talk in the comments!
The Candid Cover says
This is an interesting selection of books! I did not know about this day before, as I am from Canada. Thanks for enlightening me! 🙂
Yea I remember being pretty confused when I learned about International Workers Day a few years ago myself, you don’t really hear about it much in the US (and Canada) since we observe the labor movement in September. Thanks for reading!
Her Digital Coffee says
This is wonderful! Great picks. I’d love to add the book by Erik Loomis and Micah Uetricht to my list. Thanks for sharing and Happy May!
Thank you for reading and commenting, and I hope you find that book a good one!
RADIUM GIRLS was a very intriguing book about a part of history I didn’t know anything about…absolutely horrible.
I didn’t know there was a book about it! I found out about those gals a few months back/somewhat recently, Bailey Sarian did a Dark History episode on the story in case you’re interested. Truly horrific.
Dedra @ A Book Wanderer says
Such an important topic. Thank you so much for sharing this with us Kal!
Thanks for reading, Dedra!
Nicole @ BookWyrm Knits says
Thank you for this list! I had heard of Radium Girls before, but the others are all new to me. I’ve been learning a lot about labor organizing lately… it all started when I started following Jorts and Jean on Twitter. 😉
Jorts is the true hero we didn’t know we needed! I’ve definitely become more interested in labor organizing as a result, which is useful because my job is part of a union. It’s been interesting to see the two sides!