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What to Read on Labor History


The working class and labor movement of the Pittsburgh area are, of course, inseparable from the working class and labor movement of the United States. There are an incredible number of informative things to read on these subjects, each with their own interesting interpretations. Here is only a modest sampling.


Where to start

A Short History of the U.S. Working Class, From Colonial Times to the Twenty-first Century, by Paul Le Blanc (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000). According to the review in New Labor Forum (published by the Queens College Labor Resource Center), "Le Blanc has effectively crammed in between the binding more historical information than one would have considered possible," presenting the information "simply and lucidly" and "judiciously." Over fifty pages of this 200-page book provide an historical time-line, a detailed chronology, an extensive glossary, and a bibliography that includes videos, magazines, and websites.

Keystone of Democracy: A History of Pennsylvania Workers, edited by Howard Harris and Perry K. Blatz (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1999). This provides a rich collection of essays on the different phases of Pennsylvania labor history, with special pieces focusing also on key events and significant personalities. In the words of Charles McCollester, President of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society: "For the first time one volume brings together and important story that many scholars, teachers, historians, activists, public officials and private citizens have known for a long time -- that so many of the defining events in American labor history happened in Pennsylvania. Keystone of Democracy advances substantially our understanding of this vital history."

Labor's Untold Story, by Robert O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais (New York: Cameron Associates, 1955; reprinted by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America). This is a dramatically written account that provides a clear overview, many little-known facts, and a very radical interpretation. It takes the story up to the 1950s.

Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor, by Thomas Brooks (New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1971). A standard history, this well-written and interesting account was written from the standpoint of the AFL-CIO leadership of that time, taking the story up through the 1960s.

Why Unions Matter, by Michael Yates (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998). Reading this brief but information-packed book is like taking a whole Labor Studies course. Yates, for many years a Professor of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown and long-time labor educator, combines labor history with economics, sociology, political science and down-to-earth stories about real people and actual situations.

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For further reading

One of the oldest serious histories of U.S. labor, still worth consulting today, is Johns R. Commons, in association with David J. Saposs, Helen L. Sumner, E.B. Mittelman, H.E. Hoagland, john B. Andrews, Selig Perlman, and Philip Taft, History of Labor in the United States, 4 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1918-1935). Offering a more radical point of view, also with useful information on women, immigrants, African-Americans, and others not covered well in Commons, is Philip S. Foner, A History of the Labor Movement in the United States, 10 vols. (New York: International Publishers, 1947-1994).

Neither of these works goes past 1930. From the Depression decade through the 1950s, the following are worth consulting: Irving Bernstein, The Turbulent Years: A History of the American Worker, 1933-1941 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), Len DeCaux, Labor Radical, From the Wobblies to the CIO: A Personal History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970); Art Preis, Labor's Giant Step: Twenty Years of the CIO (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972); and Robert H. Zieger, The CIO, 1935-1955 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Encompassing, in quite different ways, the ground covered by Commons, Foner and those dealing with "the CIO period," and bringing the story down to the late twentieth century, are Jeremy Brecher's radical account, Strike! (Boston: South End Press, 1997), Ronald L. Filippeli's more conventional Labor in the USA, A History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984).

One of the best books to look at, with a fine collection of essays by prominent labor historians and with rich and colorful artwork and photographs, is Richard B. Morris, ed., The U.S. Department of Labor Bicentennial History of the American Worker (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976). Another good collection of scholarly essays can be found in Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren Van Tine, Labor Leaders in America (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987). A very different vantage-point, is provided by Alice and Staughton Lynd, eds., Rank and File: Personal Histories by Rank and File Organizers (New York: Monthly Review Press). Another collection of short, clearly-written essays dealing with the impact of labor on U.S. politics can be found in Paul Buhle and Alan Dawley, eds., Working for Democracy: American Workers from the Revolution to the Present (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985). A more recent collection -- with some first-hand accounts by people who actually made the history mixed in with a number of scholarly essays, and with a significant amount of material on the Pittsburgh area -- is John Hinshaw and Paul Le Blanc, eds., U.S. Labor in the Twentieth Century, Studies in Working-Class Struggles and Insurgency (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000).

The history of the U.S. working class is interwoven with the history of the various peoples who have created this "nation of nations" that is the United States of America. Some of this story, with substantial attention to labor history, is beautifully told in Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1993). Much on working-class immigrants is offered in John Bodnar, Workers' World: Kinship, Community and Protest in an Industrial Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982). Important elements of the essential African-American component of labor history can be found in Jervis Anderson, A. Philip Randolph: A Biographical Portrait (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1973); Philip S. Foner, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981 (New York: International Publishers, 1982); and Philip S. Foner and Ronald Lewis, eds., Black Workers: A Documentary History from Colonial Times to the Present (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989). Among the books that focus on women in labor are Alice Kessler-Harris, A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Rosalyn Baxandall, Linda Gordon, Susan Reverby, eds., America's Working Women: A Documentary History - 1600 to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1976); and Brigid O'Farrell and Joyce Kornbluh, eds., Rocking the Boat: Union Women's Voices, 1915-1975 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1996).

For labor songs, which have always been important in the history of the labor movement, see Edith Fowke and Joe Glazer, eds., Songs of Work and Protest (New York: Dover Publications, 1973), plus Pete Seeger and Bob Reisner, eds., Carry It On: The Story of America's Working People in Song and Picture (Bethlehem, PA: Sing Out Publications, 1991).

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Pittsburgh-area focus

An exciting account of the great labor upsurge of 1877, touched off by a spontaneous nationwide rail strike, can be found in Robert V. Bruce, 1877: Year of Violence (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1959), which gives substantial attention to what happened in Pittsburgh. A short and fascinating account of the transition of Pittsburgh from a city dominated by skilled workers to a city dominated by big corporations can be found in Francis G. Couvares, The Remaking of Pittsburgh: Class and Culture in an Industrializing City, 1877-1919 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984). The history of Homestead's working class is well-served by Paul Krause, The Battle for Homstead, 1880-1892: Politics, Culture and Steel (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992), and William Serrin, Homestead, the Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town (New York: Vintage Books, 1992).

Steel was vitally important to Pittsburgh's economy and working class. David Brody covers an important part of the story in Steelworkers in America: The Non-Union Era (Urbana: University of Illinois, 1987) and Labor in Crisis: The Steel Strike of 1919 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987). Other pieces of the story can be found in Paul Clark, Peter Gottlieb, and Donald Kennedy, eds., Forging a Union of Steel: Philip Murray, SWOC, and the United Steelworkers (Ithaca: ILR Press, 1987) and in John Herling, The Right to Challenge: People and Power in the Steelworkers Union (New York: Harper and Row, 1972). The close of the story is dealt with in John P. Hoerr, The Wolf Finally Came: The Decline of the American Steel Industry (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999).

Among the most remarkable personalities in the American labor movement was "Mother" Mary Jones, who was active in the struggles of mineworkers and steelworkers in the Pittsburgh area. She tells her own story in The Autobiography of Mother Jones (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr Co., 1990) and in Philip S. Foner, ed., Mother Jones Speaks: Collected Speeches and Writings (New York: Monad Press, 1983). A leader in struggles of the mineworkers and the building of the CIO was John Brophy, whose autobiography A Miner's Life, edited by John O.P. Hall (Madison: University of Milwaukee Press, 1964), is also worth reading. One of the most provocative and influential representatives from the religious community was Monsignor Charles Owen Rice, whose story can be found in Fighter With a Heart: Writings of Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh Labor Priest, ed. by Charles McCollester (Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh University Press, 1996).

Aspects of the racial and ethnic mix of the Pittsburgh area's working class and labor struggles are touched on in John Bodnar, Roger Simon, and Michael P. Weber, Lives of Their Own: Blacks, Italians and Poles in Pittsburgh, 1900-1960 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983), Peter Gottlieb, Making Their Own Way: Southern Blacks' Migration to Pittsburgh, 1916-1930 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987)., and Dennis C. Dickerson, Out of the Crucible: Steelworkers in Western Pennsylvania, 1875-1980 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986). The blend of race, ethnicity and class can also be found in two fine novels dealing with Pittsburgh labor struggles -- Thomas Bell, Out of This Furnace (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1976), and William Attaway, Blood on the Forge (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987).

The author:

Paul Le Blanc is Assistant Professor of History at Pittsburgh's LaRoche College and a member of the National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO. He has worked as a unionized auto worker, shipyard worker, hospital worker, and teacher. He is author of a number of books, including A Short History of the U.S. Working Class.

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Last updated March 21, 2003