Labor Day, of course, is not a holiday to mark the end of summer and the beginning of school. That’s just what we pretend it is.

Labor Day is a day set aside to recognize the labor movement, which has made life easier for millions of American workers — better pay, job security, reasonable working hours, health care and paid vacations.

So, to educate you, to entertain you, maybe to help you celebrate properly, here are 10 books to read for Labor Day.


“Packinghouse Daughter,” by Cheri Register. Register tells the story of the 1959 meatpackers strike in her hometown of Albert Lea, Minn. Part memoir, part history, the book explores the lives of strikers, managers and strikebreakers and the repercussions for the town. Winner of a Minnesota Book Award and an American Book Award.

“Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” by David von Drohle. The fire that swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on a March afternoon in 1911 killed 146 people, mostly young immigrant women. Their deaths, while tragic, were not in vain; industry reforms resulted, particularly in the area of worker safety.

“Death in the Haymarket,” by James Green. An 1886 workers’ rally in Chicago turned deadly when someone threw a bomb into the crowd. Seven policemen and seven workers were killed, and more than 100 people were injured. Green’s book explores the class tensions, labor history and aftermath.

“Rebel Girl,” by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Labor leader, feminist and activist Flynn was a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union. She was also a Communist, an affiliation that got her arrested and convicted in 1951 for violation of the Smith Act. Her memoir, “Rebel Girl,” was written as she was about to enter prison.

“Revolutionary Teamsters,” by Bryan Palmer. An account of the 1934 Teamsters strike that deeply affected Minneapolis. Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt said in his review, “Palmer’s narrative is best at tracing the growing union consciousness among workers and the backlash from police, many politicians, the virulent Citizens Alliance that fronted for employers, the local dailies and even the more conservative Roosevelt-aligned national Teamster leadership and craft union leaders in the Twin Cities.”


“An American Tragedy,” by Theodore Dreiser. In Dreiser’s famous 1925 novel about class and ambition, Clyde, a young man with aspirations, gets Roberta, a young factory worker, pregnant. But as he rises in his career he falls for someone else. After an ill-fated boat ride and an argument, Roberta ends up dead and Clyde ends up in jail.

“The Preacher and the Slave,” by Wallace Stegner. This early Stegner novel is a fictionalized biography of the great labor leader Joe Hill, who was executed in 1915 for the murder of a Salt Lake City businessman. (But did he do it?) Hill lives on in legend and song.

“The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair. The famous novel by journalist Sinclair, written in 1906, tells the story of impoverished immigrants who worked in meatpacking plants in Chicago under dire conditions.

“Empire Rising” by Thomas Kelly. A sprawling historical novel about an Irishman who helped build the Empire State Building, “Empire Rising” also explores the Tammany Hall politics, the trade unions, and the lively city itself.

“Accordion Crimes” by Annie Proulx. Proux traces the American immigrant experience by following a small green accordion that gets passed from Sicilians to Italians to Irish to American blacks to Poles to Norwegians. All cultures worked hard and suffered, and all cultures found solace in music.


Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune’s senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: