Five Books About Labor for Labor Day



Labor unions, love them or hate them, are a fabric of American history and also a major influence in the world of writing. Authors explored the image of labor unions throughout the 20th century and have provided us with great stories and insight into the history of labor in the United States.


So here we go:


1. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair


This fun filled novel (err....) was introduced to me during my high school years. The Jungle is a horrifying look into the life of an immigrant just trying to make it in America. Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906 and demonstrated to the reader the third world type living and working conditions the main character, a Lithuanian named Jurgis Rudkus, suffers through in Chicago.

Jungle, Sinclar

Jurgis gets a job at the slaughterhouse near his shanty where he struggles to make ends meet. His fellow workers suffer all sorts of gruesome hardships and are sent packing. Eventually, Jurgis gets hurt on the job and is fired. His wife is raped in exchange for money and as a result Jurgis attacks him and goes to jail.

The end of the book is as off putting to some readers as the bitter realities Jurgis faces in the first 3/4ths of it. He becomes a Socialist. Now, the important lesson here is that unions were able to help stem the tide of the worker getting crushed under heel. It would take a few more decades, but The Jungle is an education and why they were necessary.


It's one of those say what you want moments, but at least we aren't losing our jobs if our fingers end up in the Alpo cans.




2. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich


I was introduced to Nickel and Dimed in an American folklore class at college. How is folklore? No idea, but it is a book that leaves an impact on anyone who chooses to pick it. Nickel and Dimed is a work of non-fiction by investigative journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich. Erhrenreich takes on the Welfare Reform Act and tries to subsist on the minimum wage of 1996 which at the time was $4.75. WTF?


She struggles to survive even with a series of safety nets in place. A roof over her head, a car and a stable job. The jobs are all meant for those who are considered "unskilled." These jobs are subject to a battery of tests that are often failed for that wage sector, but the biggest issue surrounding the experiment was the low wage. Wages were not meeting the inflation rate, rising housing costs and the cost of food.


Erhrenreich's work was a commentary on the labor market and the pitfalls of being considered "unskilled." Luckily for her the minimum wage was increased in 1997 to $7.25 (in most states) which strangely enough is the current rate for much of the nation.




3. In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck


In Dubious Battle isn't one of Steinbeck's best or most well known works. It is a distant cry from Of Mice and Men, but when I stumbled across on Amazon I decided to give it a once over and I wasn't disappointed. The plot follows Jim Nolan who is tired of his life in a boarding house to meet a Communist Party recruiter. Jim goes through his life story of being poor, abused and overworked.


Jim is recruited is go and convince a group of Californian fruit pickers who have suffered a cut in wages. Jim and his posse are hoping to get the fruit pickers to strike for higher wages all the while recruiting for the Communist Party. Naturally, this leads to a level of violence, tragety and a step for the unification of workers who are abused by their bosses.

Steinbeck wrote In Dubious Battle in 1936 with the original intent to have it be a journalistic piece, but choose a fictional account to really highlight the aspects of the abuse faced by workers and the at will wage changes they faced in a time when America was at the precipice of economic annihilation.

James Franco did some crap version of it in 2007. I recommend the book.



4. Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David Von Drehle

The theme you are probably picking up here is that workers used to be treated like animals. Well, in 1911 that still held true. The Triangle Building was home to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. For some messed up reason, the owners made it a habit to lock all of the doors to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks by its employees.


Well, the title gives it away now doesn't it?

There was a fire at the Triangle building and since the owners were slimy scumbags anyways made a break for it without caring about their employees. Most of them were women and you know they couldn't vote so why did it matter, right? Oh because they were humans? I see, well as you can imagine with all of the door locks only a few escaped resulting in the deaths of 146 people.


Triangle: The Fire that Changed America covers how the neglect of the company led to this horrible fire and the laws that changed as a result.


Took the deaths of 146 people to get some change.



5. Meet You in Hell by Les Standiford


This one hits a little close to home. Henry Frick and Andrew Carnegie weren't exactly the cheery and giving people we always wanted them to be. Nope. The coke producers of Pittsburgh tried to fix the price much to Carnegie's chagrin. So Frick and Carnegie settled on a price that would work out best for Carnegie Steel. Meet You in Hell is a look into the Gilded Age of Pittsburgh and the labor movement in the steel industry including the Homestead Strike.


A brief history lesson here.

The strike breakers were hired by Frick and knew that it would be a brutal put down. Carnegie and Frick weren't the best of friends, but Carnegie didn't stop Frick from bringing the Pinkerton Detectives.


The book also discussed the fallout among senior leadership at Carnegie Steel. There's something satisfying about watching a company collapse from the top down.

The best thing that came out of Frick's hate for Carnegie was the charity battle they undertook in their later lives.


Good thing it only took to the end of their lives, huh?




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