Workers’ Rights: A Reading List

Yesterday was Labor Day, “a federal holiday that recognize the American labor movement and the works and contributions of laborers to the development and achievements of the United States.” The very first Labor Day was celebrated in 1882, but, as many of you may know, we’re still fighting for a living wage for all, better working conditions and effective, well-protected workers’ rights. Below are some recommended titles that touch on the history of labor rights and how they affect different communities. For those who may have never had to work a job that doesn’t pay you enough to survive, remember there are others who are not as fortunate. The next time you hear about a union forming or employees going on strike, remember they’re only fighting for fair treatment and the right to survive from the compensation of their labor.


BLACK FIREFIGHTERS AND THE FDNY: THE STRUGGLE FOR JOBS, JUSTICE, AND EQUITY IN NEW YORK CITY

BY DAVID GOLDBERG

For many African Americans, getting a public sector job has historically been one of the few paths to the financial stability of the middle class, and in New York City, few such jobs were as sought-after as positions in the fire department (FDNY). For over a century, generations of Black New Yorkers have fought to gain access to and equal opportunity within the FDNY. Tracing this struggle for jobs and justice from 1898 to the present, David Goldberg details the ways each generation of firefighters confronted overt and institutionalized racism. An important chapter in the histories of both Black social movements and independent workplace organizing, this book demonstrates how Black firefighters in New York helped to create affirmative action from the “bottom up,” while simultaneously revealing how white resistance to these efforts shaped white working-class conservatism and myths of American meritocracy.

COMMON SENSE AND A LITTLE FIRE, SECOND EDITION: WOMEN AND WORKING-CLASS POLITICS IN THE UNITED STATES, 1900-1965

BY ANNELISE ORLECK

Over twenty years after its initial publication, Annelise Orleck’s Common Sense and a Little Fire continues to resonate with its harrowing story of activism, labor, and women’s history. Orleck traces the personal and public lives of four immigrant women activists who left a lasting imprint on American politics. Though they have rarely made more than cameo appearances in previous histories, Rose Schneiderman, Fannia Cohn, Clara Lemlich Shavelson, and Pauline Newman played important roles in the emergence of organized labor, the New Deal welfare state, adult education, and the modern women’s movement. Orleck takes her four subjects from turbulent, turn-of-the-century Eastern Europe to the radical ferment of New York’s Lower East Side and the gaslit tenements where young workers studied together. Orleck paints a compelling picture of housewives’ food and rent protests, of grim conditions in the garment shops, of factory-floor friendships that laid the basis for a mass uprising of young women garment workers, and of the impassioned rallies working women organized for suffrage. 

LABOR UNDER FIRE: A HISTORY OF THE AFL-CIO SINCE 1979

BY TIMOTHY J. MINCHIN

Timothy Minchin is one of the most prolific and insightful historians researching U.S. labor in the era since World War II. His books have helped illuminate the darker corners of labor’s story neglected by his contemporaries in the field. In Labor Under Fire, Minchin does it again, bringing shrewd judgment to bear as he frames organized labor’s recent history as a tale of struggle, resiliency, and hope.

Joseph A. McCartin, Georgetown University

SEMI QUEER: INSIDE THE WORLD OF GAY, TRANS, AND BLACK TRUCK DRIVERS

BY ANNE BALAY

Long-haul trucking is linked to almost every industry in America, yet somehow the working-class drivers behind big rigs remain largely hidden from public view. Gritty, inspiring, and often devastating oral histories of gay, transsexual, and minority truck drivers allow award-winning author Anne Balay to shed new light on the harsh realities of truckers’ lives behind the wheel. A licensed commercial truck driver herself, Balay discovers that, for people routinely subjected to prejudice, hatred, and violence in their hometowns and in the job market, trucking can provide an opportunity for safety, welcome isolation, and a chance to be themselves–even as the low-wage work is fraught with tightening regulations, constant surveillance, danger, and exploitation. The narratives of minority and queer truckers underscore the working-class struggle to earn a living while preserving one’s safety, dignity, and selfhood.

THE HAMLET FIRE: A TRAGIC STORY OF CHEAP FOOD, CHEAP GOVERNMENT, AND CHEAP LIVES

BY BRYANT SIMON

For decades, the small, quiet town of Hamlet, North Carolina, thrived thanks to the railroad. But by the 1970s, it had become a postindustrial backwater, a magnet for businesses in search of cheap labor and almost no oversight. Imperial Food Products was one of those businesses. The company set up shop in Hamlet in the 1980s. Workers who complained about low pay and hazardous working conditions at the plant were silenced or fired. But jobs were scarce in town, so workers kept coming back, and the company continued to operate with impunity. Then, on the morning of September 3, 1991, the never-inspected chicken-processing plant a stone’s throw from Hamlet’s city hall burst into flames. Twenty-five people perished that day behind the plant’s locked and bolted doors. It remains one of the deadliest accidents ever in the history of the modern American food industry.

KNOCKING ON LABOR’S DOOR: UNION ORGANIZING IN THE 1970S AND THE ROOTS OF A NEW ECONOMIC DIVIDE

BY LANE WINDHAM

Anyone who cares about work and workers in today’s America should read this book. Overturning myths that are widely believed, Windham arouses both hope and outrage as she makes fresh sense of the staggering rise of inequality since the 1970s.

Nancy MacLean, author of Freedom Is Not Enough

PORN WORK: SEX, LABOR, AND LATE CAPITALISM

BY HEATHER BERG

Every porn scene is a record of people at work. But on-camera labor is only the beginning of the story. Porn Work takes readers behind the scenes to explore what porn performers think of their work and how they intervene to hack it. Blending extensive fieldwork with feminist and antiwork theorizing, Porn Workdetails entrepreneurial labor on the boundaries between pleasure and tedium. Rejecting any notion that sex work is an aberration from straight work, it reveals porn workers’ creative strategies as prophetic of a working landscape in crisis. In the end, it looks to what porn has to tell us about what’s wrong with work, and what it might look like to build something better.

BREWING A BOYCOTT: HOW A GRASSROOTS COALITION FOUGHT COORS AND REMADE AMERICA CONSUMER ACTIVISIM

BY ALLYSON P. BRANTLEY

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 consumer boycott as their weapon of choice, activists targeted Coors for allegations of antiunionism, 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.