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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

Robert  Enholm

Robert A. Enholm
Executive Director of the Woodrow Wilson House

Considering books for this list, my thoughts are naturally drawn to the first part of the 20th century when, in the face of the increasing pace of social and technological change, the labor movement was really gaining traction. This era saw the realization of the industrial revolution in America; the mechanization of agriculture; the "Great Migration" of workers from the farms to the cities; the entry of women into the formalized workforce in large numbers and the advent of the automobile, airplane, telephone, radio, electric home appliances and moving pictures (silent). Woodrow Wilson appointed William Wilson as the first Secretary of Labor in 1913, and Wilson's domestic legislative accomplishments included child labor laws and an eight-hour work day for railroad workers.

Reflecting on the enduring legacy of this era, my suggestions are:

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906). This bestseller was squarely in the growing progressive spirit of the times. It reveals the working conditions in the Chicago stockyards, raising public concerns not only about working conditions, but also about sanitary conditions and food safety. Broadly, the book makes the case for government as a counterbalance to unrestrained industrialization and capitalism, and its publication is widely considered a watershed event in labor history in America.

Frederick W. Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management (1911). The rational and scientific approaches to all aspects of life of the late 19th century were most notably applied to the workplace by Taylor, whose motion studies and focus on efficiency not only gave shape to the modern factory, but also provided the framework for management consulting and an efficiency mindset in looking at work and the workplace. While work certainly looks very different more than 100 years after this book's publication, it is still considered a seminal work on organizational theory and managerial technique.

Robert A. Enholm is the Executive Director of the Woodrow Wilson House, a historic site of the National Trust for Historic preservation, open to the public in Washington, D.C.

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