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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

Sharon Block

Sharon Block
Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor

Thomas Geoghegan, Which Side Are You On?: Trying To Be for Labor When It's Flat on Its Back (1991). This book first came out as I was finishing law school and embarking on a career in labor and employment law. It made a tremendous impression on me for several reasons. First, it provides a great lesson in modern labor history in an engaging and personal manner. More importantly, it imparted the urgency of the problems faced by labor just as I was starting out. As I have considered new jobs throughout my career, the title of this book always resonates as I ask myself whether my next move will enable me to be a part of the solution to the challenges Geoghegan raised.

Nan Robertson, The Girls in the Balcony: Women, Men, and the New York Times (1992). When I was a young girl in the 1970s, I remember watching my middle-class, suburban mother struggle with her feelings about the nascent women's movement. Some of those struggles she worked out through me—cautioning me not to learn to type so no one would ever hire me to be a secretary or not to learn to cook so no one would marry me just to keep house. These admonitions confused me. I was confident that being a woman would never be an obstacle to being whatever I wanted when I grew up. Reading this book as an adult reinforced to me that my mother was right to be worried about my future. That even an institution like the New York Times could so doggedly cling to its sexist labor policies validated my mother's fears that women cannot take any opportunity for granted.

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (2001). When I first read this book in 2001, I was a career attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, representing it in the courts of appeals. So my primary interaction with cases was through a paper record—trial transcripts, briefs and decisions of the Board; I had no first-hand contact with the people whose lives and livelihoods were in my hands. Ehrenreich's remarkable chronicle of her journey in low-wage jobs and the stories of her coworkers propelled me to examine and understand the lives of those whose cases I handled in a much different way, to take more time to look at not just the legal issues, but also the humanity at stake.

Dennis Lehane, The Given Day (2008). I wish that more current fiction writers wrote about labor issues and working class people. Of course, I wish more writers were as skilled as Lehane. I am grateful that he used his incredible talent to tell the personal side of an important event in labor history—the 1919 Boston police strike. He shows us how political issues can have gut-wrenching consequences for family, friends and communities. This book is also a profoundly sensitive look at race relations in America, opening with what I believe to be one of the best chapters in American literature, in which Babe Ruth plays a pick-up game of baseball with an African-American team by the railroad tracks on his way to the World Series.

Sharon Block is the Senior Counselor to the Secretary of Labor and a former member of the National Labor Relations Board.

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