Labor Dept. releases list of “books that shaped work in America”

WASHINGTON – To commemorate its centennial, but also just in time for the holiday shopping season, the U.S. Labor Department has released a fascinating list of “books that shaped work in America.” And it wants its readers and viewers to jump in with their own choices, too.

That’s because, as chief department spokesman Carl Fillichio notes, “The list is a work in progress, just like our nation.

“We welcome book suggestions from union members, labor educators, union leaders, retirees and advocates. The goal of the effort is to spark discussion and engage people from all walks of life in the history, mission and important resources of their Labor Department,” he adds. Post suggestions at

The written works are a varied and, some would say, eclectic, lot. Books on DOL’s list range from right-wing favorite Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged to Upton Sinclair’s muckraking The Jungle, which led to regulation of the horrific meatpacking industry. Some touch on the lives of workers in various ways – such as McGuffey’s Eclectic Primer from the 1800s, August Wilson’s collected plays and Walt Whitman’s poetry. And you can look for the work connection in children’s books like Ian Falconer’s Olivia and Mo Willems’ I’m a Frog.

The book with the most obvious union connection is William Serrin’s 20-year-old Homestead: The Glory And Tragedy Of An American Steel Town. Serrin began with the 1892 strike and the steelworkers’ confrontation with company-hired Pinkertons.

“Much of what makes up America can be examined in Homestead,” Serrin writes. “The rise of industrialization and the breaking apart of industrialization, the role that immigrants played, the migration of black people to the North, authoritarianism and the acceptance of it, contention between workers and employers, the role of unions in American life, the heroism of ordinary people in the face of the strongest adversaries, how America uses things – people, resources, cities – then discards them.”

Other books with pro-worker viewpoints include Working by Studs Terkel and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled And Dimed In America.

Several books deal with the struggles of women and African Americans to get ahead, including at work. Besides Wilson’s plays, that group includes Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s recent memoir, My Beloved World, and many more.

The Labor Department believes all of them had some influence or something to say about work. Business gets mixed reviews in the department’s book list. Titles range from the “free market” Capitalism and Freedom by economist Milton Friedman to gripping exposes such as Gerald Thompson’s Working in the Shadows.

Check out the list, and submit your own suggestions.

Photo: Department of Labor



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.