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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

Mary Beth Maxell

Mary Beth Maxwell
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy

Michael Harrington, The Other America (1962). As a young college student, it was the Catholic social gospel tradition that was my introduction to issues of poverty, social justice and workers’ rights. Dorothy Day, in her life and in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, inspired a Catholic worker movement that called on people of faith to live and work in solidarity with the poor—to embody the Christian teaching of “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.” In so doing, she influenced Michael Harrington, another icon for social justice activists who would go on to write The Other America and awaken a generation to the challenges of its time and spark a movement for justice for the working poor.  

Joanne Grant, Ella Baker: Freedom Bound (1999). The civil rights movement had a profound impact on the world of work, and there are many incredible books that chronicle that history.  But for a generation of young organizers like myself, there were some that were particularly critical because they recognized the leadership of women behind the scenes, like Ella Baker and Septima Clark, who instinctively knew that change arises from the uplifting of average folk—people like hairdressers and school teachers and domestic workers; that, in addition to the famous speeches, the work of a movement is largely found in sometimes humble, often courageous daily tasks; and that, in addition to laws passed and barriers broken, true, lasting change comes from individuals elevated by collective experience, bringing new hope, skills and expectations to our communities and workplaces.

David von Drehle, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America (2003).  On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died in the most horrific workplace tragedy America had ever experienced. Those who perished were young immigrant women and men laboring in a crowded Manhattan sweatshop — the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Many plunged to their death from windows on the upper floors because there were no fire escapes and the doors were locked, a common practice at the time to prevent theft and unauthorized breaks. This tragedy shaped a young woman named Frances Perkins, who would go on to lead a movement to improve working conditions for low-wage workers and, decades later, as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, craft core labor standards that protect workers to this day. Triangle documents and honors this critical turning point in America’s labor history. And 100 years later, it remains relevant because a new generation of immigrants, working in often dangerous and dirty jobs­, still faces obstacles when advocating for improved conditions. 

Randy Shilts, The Mayor of Castro Street: The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1982).A sea-change has occurred in the world of work as millions of LGBT people have come out in their communities and workplaces—whether retail workers or bank executives, nurses or elected officials. Across the country, we are organizing for workplace protections, and while there is still much to do, American work culture has fundamentally changed because more and more of us can and do share the full truth of who we are. An early leader of the LGBT movement—Harvey Milk—helped spark this change, calling on people to “come out” and leading by example when he became the first openly gay elected official in San Francisco in 1978. At the time, I was a 7th grader at an Omaha Catholic school (where the response to “gay” ranged from silence to fear and danger)—pretty much a world away from Harvey Milk with no way of knowing of this history in the making. Within a year, the fledgling movement was mourning Milk’s tragic death, and I and thousands of others like me might never have known about him if not for this powerful book (and subsequent award-winning film, Milk) that inspired us to action and keeps his story and spirit alive.

Mary Beth Maxwell is the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy.

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