On the Backs of Labor


By Alan Hecht

Around the world, people of many nations celebrate May 1 as International Workers Day. Although not widely observed in the United States, May Day has deep roots in the history of American labor. The date commemorates the May 1, 1886 strike which gave rise to the Haymarket Affair in Chicago on May 4.

In this issue we are recognizing this originally American observance with a selection of fiction and nonfiction titles highlighting the lives and histories of American working people.

Fight Like Hell: The Untold History of American Labor
By Kim Kelly
The history of the labor movement is an underappreciated part of the American story. In addition, the images of the American working class and the labor movement from pop culture and the collective imagination tend to be overwhelmingly white and male. Certain jobs and industries, often associated with marginalized people, receive little attention in spite of the contributions of domestic workers, migrant workers and sex workers.

“Fight Like Hell” corrects these tendencies, positioning the struggle for labor rights in the mainstream of the great rights revolutions of our history and highlighting the roles of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinx people, women and LGBTQ+ people in this movement’s achievements.

After a time of dormancy, we are seeing labor activism on the rise among an ever more diverse and younger work force. Kim Kelly’s narrative reveals a usable past capable of informing and inspiring the future.

The Cold Millions
by Jess Walter
Brothers Gig and Rye Dolan struggle for survival and dignity in this novel of the early labor union movement, encountering historical figures such as IWW co-founder Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.

Triangle: The Fire that Changed America
by Dave von Drehle
The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire exposed the inhumane labor conditions prevailing at the time. Von Drehle tells the story of this event and its aftermath.

Gilded Mountain
by Kate Manning
Sylvie Pelletier goes to work for the wealthy Padgett family. She becomes aware of the injustices undergirding the Padgetts’ world of privilege, and must choose whether to act on her knowledge.

Alan Hecht is Adult Services Librarian at the Montgomery County Public Libraries, Wheaton Library.


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