We take so much for granted in this country–even as there is still so much to gain. No real maternity leave. Barely any vacation time. A living wage for many is still a goal. But, we have a massive book of safety regulations. We have workman’s comp and disability. It’s interesting to remember that one of my grandfathers was “labor” and the other “management.” Yet at rare two family gatherings, they would be huddled together in the corner happily talking. My “management” grandfather was nearly killed in an accident in steal mill. He was an electrical engineer with a PhD from Purdue, but trousers caught in a machine are no respector of status. He spent nearly a year in the burn ward of a Gary, Indiana hospital recovering and never went swimming nor wore shorts again. My labor grandfather drove his truck on DDay off the landing craft and onto the beach. He made it home. The next day he went to the trucking company and went back to work.
A Few Books for Labor Day
I’m not sure that the Jungle was the VERY first book to expose unsafe working conditions, scams against immigrants, and impure food–but it did get the attention of Congress and laws were changed. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair–still worth reading today.
I have not read this one, but it covers all the biggies. From the strikes against coal mine owners, to strikes against automakers, to Ronald Reagan and the air traffic controllers–they are here. A History of America in Ten Strikes by Erik Loomis.
Study Terkel’s other great book, Hard Times talks about the Great Depression. This book, Working, talks about what you’d imagine–working. All day, every day. For a wage.
I have not read this book, but have read tons on the Triangle Fire. We have these martyred women to thank for many of our workplace safety regulations. The Triangle Fire That Changed America by David VonDrehle.
The Woke will tell you this is a novel with a White Savior Complex. Ever wonder how Social Security got started? It started by leaving out farm workers, domestic workers, and Pullman car porters–i.e. black labor. This novel does for American domestic labor–the “Colored girls” of upper class suburbia, the maids of the rich and cleaning women everywhere what the Jungle, another novel, did for the slaughter house workers and industry. The Help by Kathryn Stockett.
We can all debate the choices made in this book. The truth is, getting by on a minimum wage job is nearly impossible in the big cities. Out in rural American where I live, if you can get a 40 hour a week job with benefits at minimum wage, and have a paid-for car, you can exist. Many do. The Wal-mart workers and the full-time gas station mini mart workers even raise children on that. It isn’t a good life. This book shows how hard it is. Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich.
And One Famous Documentary–Harvest of Shame or why iceberg lettuce is still well worth watching.
Let these books lead you to a better understand of work in America–both today, and in the past. Do not scoff at Unions. Unions gave us an 8-hour workday, a 5 day/40-hour week, safe working conditions, workman’s comp and unemployment insurance. Imagine your 5 year old CHAINED to a mechanical loom in a cotton mill? It wasn’t THAT long ago. Unions gave us an end to all things child labor. Yes, we can truly debate if they got too greedy, but do you like working part-time at 3 jobs to equal one full-time position? No? Then you need a union. Happy Labor Day, America.