In The Jungle, journalist Upton Sinclair exposes the harsh working conditions for immigrants in Chicago. It’s a grim read, but it was so powerful that it actually brought about reforms in the meatpacking industry. We love a novel with real-life consequences.
Beaten Down, Worked Up
Longtime New York Times labor correspondent Steven Greenhouse takes the longview on the decline of worker power in the U.S., and shines a light on modern movements like #RedforEd and the Fight for $15, portraits of American workers at companies like GM and Uber, and histories of labor unions that empowered marginalized workers in big ways. Most encouragingly, he offers concrete solutions for reimagining worker power today.
In Temp, Louis Hyman lifts the veil on the gig economy, making clear that it wasn’t ushered in by new apps like Uber but a series of deliberate choices made by consultants and CEOs as far back as the 1950s. Those post-war companies traded in long-term job stability for short-term profits—which could explain why you, like countless millennials, are scrambling for whatever gigs you can drum up to make ends meet. Hyman argues for a more inclusive future, but first we have to understand how we got here.
If your copy of The Grapes of Wrath is looking a little dog-eared, try Cannery Row instead. Set during the Great Depression, it’s made up of a series of vignettes of life in the cannery district. The avenue in Monterey, California, that inspired Steinbeck has since been renamed Cannery Row in tribute.
Give People Money
Universal basic income is a stipend given to every citizen to use as they will, and in this deeply reported book, Annie Lowrey of The Atlantic makes an unignorable case for how implementing such a policy would “end poverty, revolutionize work, and remake the world.” A global exploration backed up by expert accounts and personal stories of workers, Give People Money is one you don’t want to miss.
The Ambition Decisions
Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace
As journalists Hana Schank and Elizabeth Wallace were asked to make increasingly fraught decisions about work and family, they started to wonder how the women they’d graduated with were faring with the same questions. The Ambition Decisions is the culmination of interviews and data that contribute to the much-needed conversation about women’s ambition and the obstacles they face, complete with practical guideposts for forging ahead.
Bread and Roses
Milton Meltzer’s nonfiction, with its title taken from one of the union songs, is a great introduction to the history of the Labor Union. The book documents workers’ struggle in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, as they were forced unhappily from their specialties into mindless assembly lines.
The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work
Alain De Botton
Alain de Botton applies his trademark philosophical musings to the joys and pains of our working lives, exploring a range of occupations and what makes them either satisfying or soul-crushing. The San Francisco Chronicle called it “an intellectual acid trip without the stimulants,” which sounds like a perfect Labor Day weekend read.
"All Labor Has Dignity"
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This must-have collection gathers Dr. King’s speeches on labor rights and economic justice. From his addresses to labor unions in the 1960s to his historic “Mountaintop” speech, which was made in support of Black sanitation workers in Memphis, the words gathered here remain a striking call to action.
Sometimes a Great Notion
From the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest comes another modern classic, this time set in a small lumber town in Oregon in the midst of a bitter strike that turns the town on its head. The epic story that follows is the stuff of Greek legends, rooted in characters whose plight feels all too real.
We all know you mustn’t be caught dead with a white outfit after Labor Day, but there’s one thing you can be seen with: a book about American labor. Labor Day is about more than just fashion and taking the day off—it’s a commemoration of the contributions American workers have made to this country. So as soon as you’ve finished switching your wardrobe from summer to fall, settle down with one of these reads to see how labor has been defined throughout U.S. history, and what the future might hold.
Featured Image: @jennyteo/Twenty20