It’s Labor Day and we’re taking it easy and kicking our feet up in a hammock, sipping on a Finnegan’s, and doing a little reading. Preferably we’re reading something about physical labor, labor unions, or work at large. Here’s a list of books about work ranging from pamphlets of poems to detective novels, coal mine strikes to the Dust Bowl, novels about the drudgery of office work to oral histories of why we work.
10. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
Yes, that Hammett, the author of great detective novels like The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man. The backdrop of this Hammett novel is a 1917 strike by copper workers in Butte, Montana. Frank Little, an organizer, is murdered by Pinkerton goons, an early private security agency in America that Hammett himself worked for at one point. It was actually the agency’s role in breaking up strikes that disillusioned Hammett from his work and ultimately led to the end of his seven-year career with Pinkerton (with time off to serve in WWI). It spawned one of his best novels, though it doesn’t get the same love because it didn’t spawn a classic movie like the other two I mentioned.
9. Poems for Workers
This short collection of poems is available online for free and I’m not sure if you can get it anywhere else. A part of the “Little Red Library” — a series that boasts titles such as Principles of Communism, Class Struggle vs. Class Collaboration, and Trade Unions in America. Poems for Workers is a collection of working class Marxist poetry edited by Manual Gomez. It includes some work that’s not mind-blowing, but it’s short and there are a few gems tucked in here including “I Am the People, the Mob” by Carl Sandberg.
8. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
So much of Whitman’s masterpiece is about work. About the labor of work, our work as humans, our work as cogs in a universal nature. There’s always something to take from Leaves of Grass.
7. An Organizer’s Tale: Speeches by Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez, the labor leader and activist, has his speeches collected here in An Organizer’s Tale. This is an essential document to understanding Chavez’s importance and what he did for the labor movement and farm workers in America. If you’re a little burnt out on reading from grabbing something else on this list, there’s always the new Diego Luna-directed film about Chavez that just came out, starring Michael Peña, John Malkovich, and Gael Garcia Bernal.
6. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Joshua Ferris’ debut novel explores the drudgery of office life in a pitch perfect story where most of it is told in first person plural. It’s a fantastic novel about what the work environment does to a person and how, even when we fight it, co-workers become a “we.” No, it’s not about labor movements at all, but the collectiveness of the voice shows — and maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but I’m buying it — why labor movements are important.
5. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s classic novel about tenant farmers who are pushed out of their land due to drought is always worth a read. The Joads join scores of other Okies heading to California looking for work and new life in a time when work was scarce.
4. Germinal by Émile Zola
Étienne Lantier, a character from a previous Zola novel, moves to the north of France to become a coal miner. When he arrives Lantier begins to appreciate socialist principles and the worker’s movement through developing friendships with the impoverished community. Throughout the novel the miners’ life becomes worse, their oppression more severe, their poverty almost unbearable, until they decide to strike, led by Lantier.
3. Strike Debt’s Debt Resistor’s Operation Manual
Strike Debt is a fantastic organization that, through their Rolling Jubilee, has raised money to buy up bad debt and release people from it. The group has currently raised more than $70,000 and used that to buy up over $14 million dollars in bad debt from banks and other financial institutions in order to release people from their debt. They started with medical debt and are currently buying up student debt. This little manual, now only available online, is a fantastic guide to understanding debt, it’s role in the economy, what you should watch out for, and how you can resist debt if you choose.
2. Working by Studs Terkel
Working is master interviewer Studs Terkel just sitting and talking to people about what they do and how they feel about it. It’s a massive tome that you probably won’t just read on Labor Day, but it’s full of insightful stories about why we do what we do and is worth just picking up to read a story or two.
1. What Work Is by Philip Levine
The former Poet Laureate of the United States is most famous for his poems about the working class, especially the working class in his hometown of Detroit. What Work Is is his masterpiece (as far as I’m concerned) and the titular poem is a must read for everyone. Read that poem here.
If that’s not enough writing about work for you, head over to the Poetry Foundation’s “Poetry Off the Shelf” podcast to listen to an episode about the labor poetry of Chicago.