Unions have been one of the working person’s most powerful tools for securing better wages, better working conditions, and better treatment in the workplace. According to the Economic Policy Institute, workers who are unionized earn 20% more on average than their non-unionized counterparts. When you add in other benefits like healthcare and pension plans, the difference in compensation goes up to 28%. They also get 26% more vacation time and 14% more paid time off. Considering the dues workers pay are typically around 1% to 4% of their income, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
Despite these benefits, early unions were not without problems as they were often racially segregated and had other issues that ultimately weakened their ability to build a strong, nationwide movement. They began to see a decline in memberships in the United States around the 1970s, largely driven by a coordinated effort by business owners to crush unions. Even so, the 2008-2009 recession sparked growing unrest among workers that is gradually leading to a rebirth of union movements as well as a rethinking of how unions should be shaped.
This reading list will take you through the history of unions, including an intersectional look at that history from the lenses of critical race theory and queer theory. Then, you can explore some modern analysis and theory about how to organize a union that’s more inclusive, more accessible, and that creates more opportunities for all members to be actively engaged in decision-making and strategy-building in their union.
1. There Is Power in a Union: The Epic Story of Labor in America
In this sweeping history of labor and union movements in America, Philip Dray explores the brutal working conditions that sparked the need for collective action as well as the rise and fall of union movements over the last 100 years.
There Is Power in a Union is the perfect starting point for a study of unions. It provides the historical context and clearly details the social, political, and economic role that unions have played in shaping the American economy including work safety standards, minimum wage, weekends, and retirement.
Dray does this all through an engaging narrative that centers on specific characters in labor history to tell the story of labor in America. It doesn’t feel like a dry, jargon-laden account of historical dates and places. This history is populated with vividly drawn human beings and gripping accounts of the challenges they faced in their fight for fair pay and dignified treatment.
2. Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America
Miriam Frank provides us with this much-needed yet often-overlooked history of LGBTQ workers in unions as well as where the LGBT movement and union movement intersected. In Out in the Union, readers learn how queer union activists helped secure domestic partner benefits, organized AIDS education for healthcare workers, and secured other rights within unions throughout the ’70s and ’80s. It’s also an account of the role unions played in making workplaces safer for LGBTQ employees by making discrimination and harassment protections more widespread and standardized.
Told through a series of interviews with LGBT and labor activists, the book is as engaging as it is necessary for future organizers to understand how and why more inclusive unions are better unions.
3. A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Labor Radicalism
A Renegade Union is the story of District 65, an interracial union in New York of various “unskilled” workers that existed from the 1930s through the 1960s, a time when unions were drawn along racial lines. Collaboration across racial, gender, or ethnic lines was rare and many white male union leaders thought the low-wage workers of color and women that District 65 brought under its fold were “unorganizable.” District 65 set out to prove them wrong.
In the book, Lisa Philips details how by defying the norms of segregated America and reaching out to the very workers that the existing unions were ignoring, District 65 was able to rapidly grow its ranks and fight for better wages and working conditions for the most vulnerable of America’s labor force. They also acted as a key player in the civil rights movements of the ’60s, recognizing that workers’ rights and civil rights were not separate or unrelated issues. Philips uses the history of this defiantly inclusive union as an important lesson for an effective grassroots approach to building a union.
4. The Anthropology of Labor Unions
E. Paul Durrenberger and Karaleah S. Reichart edited this collection of essays that provide an intersectional analysis of modern unionizing efforts through an anthropological lens. While the essays largely adopt a more academic tone, the eight ethnographies still focus on real stories about real people, which keeps the narrative engaging and accessible.
In The Anthropology of Labor Unions, the authors of the essays examine unions past and present through the lenses of race, gender, class, age, and more to better understand why something that has such clear benefits for so many people has not been more widely adopted. Taken altogether, it’s an illuminating and important critical analysis of modern unions that can guide us toward building unions that are for everyone.
5. A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy
One part defense of unions, one part history of union-busting in America, and one part call to arms, A Collective Bargain is the book that will get you out on the streets fighting for workers’ rights everywhere. Jane McAlevey combines rigorous academic research and decades of union organizing experience with a wholly conversational tone that is decidedly not neutral. “There’s nothing neutral about suicide nets,” McAlevey writes, in reference to the nets that Apple has hung in its Chinese factories to address the high rates of suicide among its factory workers.
Readers will learn about the ruthless war that corporations waged against unions beginning in the 1930s. At the same time, McAlevey makes a compelling case for why unions are such an essential institution for improving wages and working conditions and walks readers through how to build a union.
6. Immigrant Unions and the New U.S. Labor Market
While early unions made major strides in raising the basic standards of safety, dignity, and compensation for workers, many of those labor standards are baldly ignored when it comes to the treatment of immigrant workers in America. In Immigrant Unions and the New US Labor Market, Immanuel Ness recounts the stories of immigrant workers who found the courage to organize despite their often precarious position in American society.
Not only did they rise up at a time when unions across the country were in a state of decline, but they rose up amid the heightened xenophobia and anti-immigration attitudes of post-9/11 America. The book is an empowering and inspiring look at organizing a labor movement for anyone who thinks they don’t have enough power or influence to unionize their coworkers.
7. Choke Points: Logistics Workers Disrupting the Global Supply Chain
In Choke Points, Immanuel Ness collaborates with Jake Alimahomed-Wilson to curate this volume of 15 up-close accounts of labor movements and resistance around the world. Through each account, the book reveals just how much power workers have to completely disrupt the global economy in order to force corporations to hear their demands.
Similar to Ness’s book about immigrant workers, the aim of this collection is to empower readers by showing how effective strikes, boycotts, roadblocks, and other resistance strategies can be in the fight for better wages and working conditions.
8. Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement
Kim Voss and Ruth Milkman edit this collection of essays about the challenges and shortcomings of modern unionizing efforts and strategies for reviving labor movements in the United States. Rebuilding Labor: Organizing and Organizers in the New Union Movement examines unions from diverse perspectives in order to pinpoint their weaknesses and work toward a model for building better, stronger unions.
The result is a book that can be a little too technical at times as it breaks down the dynamics of union staffing and organizational structures. Even so, it’s an enlightening read that provides an important perspective on how unions can be rebuilt in a way that makes them more representative and encourages more active engagement from its members.
9. Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below
Staughton Lynd makes the compelling case for ground-up organizing in the short but incisive Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below. The Ohio-based labor lawyer and activist draws on personal experience and research to critique the tradition of exclusive unions that act as the sole collective bargaining agent for all its workers.
Instead, Lynd explores a different model that has been emerging in this modern revival of labor movements. Instead of a hierarchical, top-down union, we’re seeing unions form through the self-organization of workers. These local, homegrown movements then grow into a series of parallel groups across regions and industries who coordinate with each other to secure larger victories while remaining self-organized. Through a comparison of this approach with the traditional one born in the 1930s, Lynd shows us why he is optimistic that this new approach is more effective.
If you would like to support small, local bookstores, then we encourage you to purchase your books at Bookshop.org.