In honor of its centennial in 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor, in partnership with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress, is developing a list of Books that Shaped Work in America. The list, DOL says, is “a work in progress, and essentially always will be, since — like America itself — work is constantly changing and evolving.”
The idea for the list — which has nearly 100 titles of fiction, nonfiction, plays and poetry (with more being added via suggestions from the public) — derived from the Books that Shaped America exhibition sponsored by the Library of Congress in 2012. The exhibition endeavored to spark a national conversation about the impact of books on overall American life and culture, and many of the books included in the exhibition address issues related to work.
“The wide range of books with work as a central theme really serve to underscore the significant role published works have played in shaping American workers and workplaces,” DOL said in describing the initiative.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez recommended five books including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that, he says, influenced many law careers, including legal luminaries Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center, author Scott Turow and federal judge Richard Matsch.
Former Secretaries of Labor Robert Reich and Hilda L. Solis each mixed in fictional classics (Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath) with contemporary non-fiction works by undercover journalists who reported on the struggles of the marginalized workforce (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America and Gabriel Thompson’s Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do).
As a service to readers, DOL references the relevant work topic area with the respective book chosen. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird covers issues such as equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. The Jungle addresses youth and labor, wages, work hours and workplace safety and health. And of course, Ehrenreich’s and Thompson’s books tackle the politically charged football known as minimum wage.
One DOL intern recommended Kathryn Stockett’s runaway bestseller, The Help, which centers on the experiences of African-American housemaids working for wealthy white families in racially charged Jackson, Miss. during the 1960s. It’s a good choice given that it touches not only on civil liberties, but specifically speaks to the still-pervasive labor issue of how to lawfully compensate live-in domestic service workers under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Sadly, books such as Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, published 114 years ago, reflect societal ills that remain as relevant today as they were when first written, despite the existence of child labor laws.
“The children of the poor grow up in joyless homes to lives of wearisome toil that claims them at an age when the play of their happier fellows has but just begun. Has a yard of turf been laid and a vine been coaxed to grow within their reach, they are banished and barred out from it as from a heaven that is not for such as they.”
— How the Other Half Lives