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Books that Shaped Work in America

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M. Patricia Smith

M. Patricia Smith
Solicitor of Labor

Work and workers have been the central guideposts of my career. And the topics and issues regarding work and workers are wide. So, not surprisingly, my list of books that shaped work in America is too.

Ben Hamper, Rivethead (1991). There is something "rock-and-rollish" about an auto assembly line: the noise, the rhythms, the mix of man and machine—as well as the truth, the grit, the energy and all that metal! Hamper, a former riveter at GM's truck and bus plant in Flint, Mich., captures all that and more in this remarkable book. There's laughter and tears and heart and soul in the lives of people who build cars, and Hamper gives a unique glimpse into their "drive."

William Serrin, Homestead (1992). This book's subtitle says it all: "The Glory and Tragedy of an American Steel Town." That's what the history of work in America has been—glories and tragedies. And that's what this book, written by a New York Times'-distinguished former labor correspondent, is about. American labor history essentially began in Homestead, Pa., in 1892, when a bloody strike erupted. The workers were ultimately defeated. But from the ashes of that strike, 50 years later, the United Steelworkers Union was born. This is the story of the countless men and women who came from across the globe and around the country in the late 1800s to build an industry, a nation, a movement—but mostly, a life for themselves.

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman (1949). I wanted to put a play on this list, and I don't think there is a better play about work than this one, which won the Pulitzer Prize and catapulted Miller to literary superstardom. It's not just about the role work plays in achieving the American dream. It's also about how and why the definition of that dream is different for everyone.

Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872). Most people would likely recommend other Twain novels as having an impact in shaping American work, but this lesser-known yet masterful tome is unique in that it's an autobiography told through cities visited in the Wild West, jobs held (from gold prospector to newspaper reporter) and ruckuses raised. Almost a century after it was published, during their 14-day-long orbit around the earth, astronauts Frank Borman and James Lovell read it to pass the time.

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (1937). This novella tells the story of two migrant ranch workers, George and Lennie, who travel from farm to ranch throughout California looking for work. Some say the story is about loneliness. But I've always believed it to be a story of friendship, and how the bond of friendship is often strengthened through work. It's also a different take on the American dream. For the two main characters, it seems constantly unattainable—for Lennie, it's his mental disability that gets in the way; for both, it's the circumstances of the times (the Great Depression). But it's their ability to still dream, and the work that brings them closer to realizing their dreams, that keeps them going.

Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1963). For millions of American women, this book was ground breaking…a universal "aha moment." It galvanized a much-needed discussion about the role of women in society by asserting the right to, and value of, work outside of marriage and motherhood. The argument it put forward, in the context of the time it was written, altered the American workforce and workplace. Forever.

M. Patricia Smith is the Solicitor of Labor.

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