Labor Day Books to Read Over the Holiday Weekend

Labor Day books may not be your typical way of organizing books.

Woman in black and white wearing goggles, working with tools on a workbench, below the words, "12 Labor Day Books to Read Over the Holiday Weekend."

But what better way to spend a holiday dedicated to workers than by not working? Besides, you may learn something about America’s labor movement.

Below are 12 Labor Day books for you to enjoy.

Don’t see a book that you think should be included? List it in the comments!

Labor Day Books: Newer Fiction

Triangle by Katharine Weber (paid link)

This novel centers on Esther Gottesfeld. She’s a fictionalized survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory that killed 146 workers in 1911.

Cover of Katherine Weber's novel Triangle.
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Gottesfeld dies at 106, the last remaining survivor of the disaster. But questions remain about how Gottesfeld survived.

Gottesfeld’s granddaughter and a friend start investigating, while a historian looks into the curious case of Gottesfeld’s survival.

The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash (paid link)

The Last Ballad is inspired by actual events from 1929 when the National Textile Workers Union tried to organize workers in Gastonia, N.C. A violent raid by the cops ended with the police chief dead.

Cash’s novel places a woman, Ella May, in the center of this historic event.

Labor Day: A Novel by Joyce Maynard (paid link)

This book centers on 13-year-old Henry and his agoraphobic mother, Adele in Holton Mills, N.H.

The Thursday before Labor Day, a stranger named Frank appears. Frank has a dark past. But he appears to become the father figure Henry’s lacked, at least for a time.

A film of the same name based on the novel came out in 2013.

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (paid link)

Particularly relevant these days, this is a novel about two families. One is well-to-do and living the good life. The other is a couple who immigrated illegally from Mexico.

By chance both families meet. What ensues is a struggle for those trying to claim their piece of the American pie and those fighting to hold onto what they have.

Labor Day Books: Pre-1990 Fiction

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair (paid link)

You can’t have a list of Labor Day books without including arguably the best-known novel about workers’ struggles.

Cover of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
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Sinclair’s book is based on his investigations of a Chicago meatpacking facility in the early 20th century. The Jungle became a national sensation that prompted passage of national food safety legislation.

But Sinclair felt the public missed the main reason he wrote the book: To call attention to the plight of immigrant workers.

“I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach,” Sinclair said.

Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey (paid link)

This is the second novel by the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

In Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey takes readers to a small lumber town on the Oregon coast. There a labor strike takes place, involving a logging family called the Stampers.

A 1970 film based on the book, “called Never Give An Inch,” starred Henry Fonda and Paul Newman. Newman also directed the picture.

Beloved by Toni Morrison (paid link)

What is this phenomenal piece of literature doing on a list of Labor Day books?

Cover of Toni Morrison's Beloved.
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Beloved is a story about the lingering effects of the highest crime committed against workers: slavery in America.

It’s almost impossible to read this novel without bearing witness to the damage incurred by humans who for generations were forced to work so that others could become rich.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (paid link)

In writing about migrant workers in Depression era California, Steinbeck said, “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.”

And that’s what he did with The Grapes of Wrath. It’s about the Joads, a family who moves from Oklahoma to California in search of work.

The book netted Steinbeck a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. It remains a mainstay in English literature classes across the U.S.

Nonfiction Books

Nickel and Dimed: On Not Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (paid link)

Ehrenreich wanted to find out how Congress’s 1996 welfare reform impacted everyday people.

Cover of one of the great Labor Day books, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed
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To accomplish this, Ehrenreich worked jobs such as a Wal-Mart clerk, cleaning woman, and waitress. She moved from Florida to Maine and Minnesota.

And she discovered what it can take to survive while working low-paying jobs in the U.S. She shared these findings in Nickel and Dimed, which first published in 2001.

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David von Drehle (paid link)

Journalist von Drehle provides an in-depth look into the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 people in 1911. It took Von Drehle years to track down official records of the tragedy, including the manuscript for the trial of the factory’s owners.

But eventually he succeeded. And in 2003 he produced what is regarded by many as the definitive account of one of the nation’s deadliest industrial disasters.

The Crusades of César Chávez: A Biography by Miriam Pawel (paid link)

This book is a critical yet empathetic look at one of America’s famous labor organizers. Pawel, a former journalist, looks deeply into Chávez’s life, beliefs, and practices.

The result is a biography that provides surprising insight into Chávez, the myth and the man.

Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 by Michael Punke (paid link)

From the author of The Revenant comes a detailed, heartbreaking expose on the deadliest hard-rock mining disaster in American history.

Cover of Michael Punke's Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917.
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At least 166 people died in the accident. But few Americans know the tragic tale.

Punke seeks to amend that with this book.

In writing about the Butte, Mon., mining disaster, Punke also uncovers early 20th-century labor struggles in what was once the world’s mining capital.


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