Interview with J. Albert Mann author of SHIFT HAPPENS

The story of the American worker is one so intertwined with the birth, growth, and success of our nation and yet it is a story rarely told. For that reason, among many others, it seems fitting to be talking with award-winning author J. Albert Mann about her young adult non-fiction book, SHIFT HAPPENS: The History of Labor in the United States on July 4th.

You need to work to live.

That’s the truth for most people, and plenty of people in power have been abusing that truth for centuries.

Long before the first labor unions were formed, workers still knew what exploitation looked like. It looked like the enslavement of Black people. It looked like generations of children dying in dangerous jobs. It looked like wealthy people hiring private militaries to attack their employees.

But workers have always found a way to fight back. Lokono tribespeople resisted Columbus and his colonizers. Enslaved people led walkouts and rebellions. Textile workers demanded a wage that would let them have fun, not just survive. Miners died for the right to unionize. From 30,000 young seamstresses striking in the early 1900s to Uber drivers organizing for change today, people have learned we’re stronger when we are united.

Shift Happens is a smart, funny, and engaging look at the history of the worker actions that brought us weekends, pay equality, desegregation, an end to child labor, and so much more.

For listeners of Stamped and An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People, Albert J. Mann’s Shift Happens: The History of Labor in the United States is an accessible and comprehensive YA history of the way the labor movement has shaped America and how it intersects with many of the major issues facing modern teens.

“Mann explores the often oppressive, abusive, and bloody history of labor conditions and the merciless rise of capitalism with wit, snark, and comprehensive context.... Riveting, enlightening, infuriating, and timely: compulsory reading.”—KirkusReviews (starred review)

"Its edgy title may attract attention, but it’s the compelling narrative and enlightening content that will keep readers engaged from cover to cover."—SLJ (starred review)

"In other hands, the snarky, conversational tone might feel like an adult’s overreach, but Mann’s simmering anger and clear passion for the working class will inspire readers just as much as the union leaders and organization efforts she covers."—BCCB (starred review)

“Mann’s introduction to the history of labor is full of sharp, galvanizing points that will keep readers engaged and help them look critically at some of our entrenched systems.”ALA Booklist

“The narrative’s laser focus on organizing heroes and essential employees, and the power of unions and striking workers to enact change, results in powerful storytelling.”—Publishers Weekly


When did your interest in the history of labor in the U.S. begin and what led to your writing SHIFT HAPPENS?

The theme of every book I’ve ever written can be summed up in a single word: equity. None of us begins life from the same place, and in order to move toward a more equitable world, we must acknowledge this. My fictional characters (and their historical timelines) have always highlighted inequities…in war, in gender, in race, in disability. Over the years, my research kept returning me to the one group with the power to lessen inequity. That group is the working class. Labor is the most powerful force on the planet, and because of this, it has always been poised to create a more level playing field on a massive scale. For this reason, taking on the history of the working class felt like a natural next step.

Why is it important for teens in particular to know this history? Why hasn’t it been taught in schools? (With the exceptions being the Haymarket affair/massacre and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy.)

Capitalism (the economic system of the United States) would be in trouble if labor was able to harness its power. For this reason, capital has a history of either denigrating labor in the mass media (it owns) with words like communism, unAmerican, unpatriotic, greedy, and corrupt, or just flat out ignoring labor all together. Most news organizations have regular business sections and programming, while reporting on labor is rare. By design, this has led to a cultural erasure of labor, along with its storied history. One of the consequences of this erasure is that schools have relegated the teaching of labor history to a few stories from the industrial revolution…disconnecting the working class of yesterday from the working class of today. Silencing the voice of labor has allowed capitalism to not only keep its power, but to grow it to a point where it is ravaging our world. Teens are about to inherit this devastation. If they hope to change it, they’ll need to understand the power structure that created the messes we’re in, as well as the group of people who have the ability to turn things around.

Who are some the key players and unsung heroes/heroines of the American labor movement?

How about I focus on labor’s most recent key player: Shawn Fain, an electrician and the President of the United Auto Workers. Fain follows in the footsteps of a long line of working class heroes—people who work for a living, understand the damaging power of capital, and spend their lives striving to change it. In 2023, he ran the most successful strike in recent U.S. history—the United Auto Workers Stand Up Strike. Fain is effective for three reasons, he speaks truth to power, he does so plainly, and he doesn’t stop speaking. “We’re all fed up with living in a world that values profits over people. We’re all fed up with seeing the rich get richer while the rest of us just continue to scrape by. We’re all fed up with corporate greed and together, we’re going to fight like hell to change it.

I don’t think this is a spoiler, but you end this book in a hopeful place. The working class has great and perhaps unrealized power to bring about big societal changes. Can you talk about that?

The most important idea in the book is that of the pyramid of oppression—how capitalism has used our differences (race, gender, disability, religion, etc.) against us for centuries. Divide and conquer. No one should deny there are differences between us but making these differences into the problem allows corporations to further their agendas unchecked. Solidarity is the key to changing this. How? Organizing. Organizing within our jobs and organizing within our communities. And not just organizing for rights, but organizing for power. To break the chokehold big business has on us. To change laws to include all of us. To better our world. 

J. Albert Mann is the author of six novels for children, as well as the author of short stories and poems featured in Highlights for Children, where she won the Highlights Fiction Award, as well as the Highlights Editors’ Choice Award. She has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Born in Jersey, she now lives in Boston with her children, cat, and husband listed in order of affection. @jenannmann


  1. Just snagged the audiobook for this one. Thanks so much for stopping by YAOTL J!


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