Bread and Roses, Too: Books about the Labor Movement

“What the woman who labors wants is to live, not simply exist—the right to life as the rich woman has it, the right to life, and the sun, and music, and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses too.”  —Rose Schneiderman, 1912

A recent, troubling trend among many governors and state legislatures is to wage war against organized labor. Unions have become the scapegoats to blame for all sorts of troubles, real and imagined. This crusade against the rights of working people to bargain for fair wages and benefits has made me think of some of the books about America’s labor history that are written for young people.

  • Auch, Mary Jane. Ashes of Roses. Henry Holt, 2002.
  • Aside from the dreadful title, this is a superb work of historical fiction. Auch tells the story of sixteen-year-old Margaret Rose Nolan, newly arrived from Ireland, who finds work at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory shortly before the 1911 fire in which 146 employees died.


  •  Bartoletti, Susan Campbell. Kids on Strike! Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
  • Bartoletti tells the compelling story of children who stood up for their rights against powerful company owners, from a “turn-out” in Lowell, Massachusetts, in 1836 led by eleven-year-old Harriet Hanson to the dramatic strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. Illustrated with more than one hundred photographs from newspapers and journals as well as with the work of photographer Lewis Hine, Bartoletti chronicles labor strikes led by young people throughout the United States.


  •  Colman, Penny. Strike! The Bitter Struggle of American Workers from Colonial Times to the Present. Millbrook, 1995.
  • An overview of 200 years of labor struggles, Colman emphasizes three facts: that throughout our history employers have not willingly shared their profits with workers, that the federal government has backed the employers, and that workers have fought bravely and endured much to improve working conditions and achieve fair wages.


  • Dash, Joan. We Shall Not Be Moved: The Women’s Factory Strike of 1909. Scholastic, 1996.
  • In 1909, teenage girls led some 30,000 shirt cutters, pressers, and finishers in the “largest strike of women workers ever known in the United States.” Not only did it unite factory workers, it gained crucial support from college-educated suffragists and from women in high society, often called “the mink brigade.” The strike, which began in New York and spread to Philadelphia, ultimately led to a settlement between more than 300 manufacturers and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.

 Freedman, Russell. Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor. Clarion, 1994.
This photobiography profiles early twentieth-century photographer and schoolteacher Lewis Hine, whose photographs of children at work were so devastating that they convinced the American people that Congress must pass child labor laws.

Haddix, Margaret Peterson. Uprising. Simon & Schuster, 2007.
In 1927, at the urging of twenty-one-year-old Harriet, Mrs. Livingston reluctantly recalls her experiences at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, including miserable working conditions that led to a strike, then the fire that took the lives of her two best friends, when Harriet, the boss’s daughter, was only five years old.

Marrin, Albert. Flesh & Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Factory and Its Legacy. Knopf, 2011.
This excellent history places the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in the context of tenement life for new immigrants in early 20th century New York City and the rise of the labor movement.

McKissack. Patricia and Frederick. A Long Hard Journey: The Story of the Pullman Porter. Walker, 1989.
This excellent introduction to labor history recounts the saga of Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, first major black labor union to be admitted to the AFL. Organized by A. Phillip Randolph just after the Civil War, the union brought together many freed slaves who were hired by George Pullman to pamper the passengers in his sleeping cars.

Meltzer, Milton. Bread and Roses: The Struggle of American Labor, 1865-1915. Random House, 1973.
Meltzer uses original source material to offer an insightful portrait of the momentous changes that took place in American labor, industry, and trade-unionism following the Civil War.

Paterson, Katherine. Bread and Roses, Too. Clarion, 2006.
Through the eyes of Rosa, the sixth-grade daughter of Italian immigrants, and Jake, a thirteen-year-old homeless boy, Paterson portrays the events leading to the mill worker strike of 1912 in Lawrence, MA.

Stanley, Jerry. Big Annie of Calument: A True Story of the Industrial Revolution. Crown, 1996.
The story of Annie Clemenc who helped organized and led a 1913 strike by copper miners employed by the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company in upper Michigan.

Published in: on March 29, 2011 at 5:50 pm  Comments (3)