Labor Day is to celebrate the gains in human rights made by the U.S. labor movement and unions. Think Unions are bad? How do you feel about 5 year olds tied to factory machines? 7 year olds down coal mines? How about a standard 16 hour day with no bathroom breaks? Do you like having sick days? Vacation days? A fair minimum wage? Thank Unions. Today.
Upton Sinclair’s classic, The Jungle, brought badly-needed attention to the meat packing industry, but it also highlighted the horrible working and living conditions of the immigrant workers. This book came out at a time of world-wide labor agitation.The Era of deadly strikes, of miner’s rights, of factory worker’s rights and safety was beginning. I learned all about this in history class. I doubt they even mention it today. Sad. So much has been forgotten. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
Today we think of 9/11, but before World War I it was the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire that caught America’s attention. Wives, mothers, daughters, sisters–all died needlessly because they were locked into the rooms where they sewed 12–16 hours per day doing piecework–paid by the piece. If they were lucky, they had one break. No time out to nurse or pump. No pay when sick–just a need to continually express gratitude for a job held for them. No vacations. Possibly one day off. The few men who died held the better paying jobs. Still think Unions are bad? How about government safety regulations? Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Von Drehle.
When my Grandmother was born in 1904 and all the way thru her school years and early married life, children went to work. They worked brutally hard jobs at endless long hours–so much so that it stunted their growth in many cases. Over the course of those years legislation was enacted to reduce hours, and increase safety for child workers. Being a paperboy was ok; being a boy miner wasn’t. It took time and hard work by those who cared to secure childhood as a right. And it took more time and blood shed to earn a fair wage that allowed parents to support their families without the incomes of children under 12 or 14. Access to birth control helped tremendously, too. All of this took time and commitment from people who looked on and said “this isn’t right.” This haunting book shows us just what these kids did at work, back in the day. Today we often think a young adult of 18 can’t possibly support him or herself (well, not in my house–but in many). How about a child of 6 having to do so? We’ve come a long way, baby. Thank you organizers. Kids at Work by Lewis Hine.
Now read in colleges and high schools, this book became an instant classic. By detailing how hard it is–nearly impossible in most cities, to live on minimum wage, Nickled and Dimed shows how working class America has become a society of barely getting-by. Cobbling together two or three jobs–each likely demanding 24 hour availablity (let that sink in) has become the new normal. And, lest we forget, it isn’t only those who drop-out of high school who are consigned to this life. Older workers, newly divorced women, women returning voluntarily to the work force, men whose family-supporting jobs moved away–there but for the Grace go all of us. This book shows how the lies about minimum wage have cost us so many healthy, productive families and up-from-poverty success stories. All denied by too low a wage too live. The basic desire to earn a fair wage, in safe conditions, with time for a family, are what caused the labor movement. Lest we forget. Nickeled and Dimed by Barbara Enrenreich.
Like The Jungle, The Tortilla Curtain tells the story of the struggle–in this case the illegal immigrant struggle in California and the American Southwest. [I will delete any comments on the illegal immigrant question–this is not a political blog]. Poignantly told by a master story teller, this book highlights the shadow economy –an economy created often, but not exclusively, by Americans completely able to pay prevailing wages and use legal labor. But that labor may not be found in their time frame. Or the work situation may not be in a location that is legal. This book is meant to evoke Steinbeck’s classic, The Grapes of Wrath, and it does so brilliantly. The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle.
Feel free to leave a comment with another book. Did you do a Labor Day book post? Leave a link.