Inspiring Novels about Labor Activists for Labor Day

My favorite bumper sticker is both witty and true: UNIONS: The Folks That Brought You the Weekend.

The five-day work week. Collective bargaining. Safe working conditions. Labor activists fought for all these and more to improve workers' lives.

Want to learn more about the labor movement's fascinating history? Check out these inspiring novels featuring union activists.

It's 1929, and single mother Ella May works 12-hour shifts, six nights a week in a North Carolina mill. Determined to improve her family's threadbare, $9-a-week existence, she becomes a union organizer, riling mill owners and union members alike in her fight for workers' rights and an integrated union. (Ella May works at one of the few integrated mills, alongside black neighbors like her best friend, Violet.) Named one of our Best Books of 2017 and based on the life of Ella May Wiggins, whose songs Pete Seeger recorded, The Last Ballad features a heroine you'll root for in her fight for justice.

Man-with-a-conscience McDermott, one of five central characters in Anita Shreve’s evocative novel Sea Glass, began working in a mill at 12. Now 20, he’s hearing-impaired from the clatter of looms. When management makes exploitative, impracticable production demands and lowers wages, McDermott and others decide to unionize and strike. Woven into this seaside drama with Shreve’s customary skill is a love story between McDermott and an unhappy newlywed, whose rambling house becomes home base for the strikers.

The heartfelt and moving Storming Heaven was pressed into my hands as a young woman. The strong impression remains. Set in Appalachian West Virginia, where the author lived in a coal camp until she was 13, the novel was inspired by the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, when thousands of impoverished miners attempting to unionize were confronted by coal company gun thugs, the police and ultimately the U.S. Army. This story of grinding poverty and greed is narrated by four different characters: a determined nurse, a Sicilian miner’s wife, a socialist mayor and a second-generation miner and union organizer whose earliest memory is of his coal-blackened father arriving home from work—exhausted—and laying down on a mat by the stove.

Although Storming Heaven, like The Grapes of Wrath and The Jungle, has some heavy-handed moments, it is nevertheless a powerful reading experience and my favorite novel about the labor movement. 

What's yours?