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Books that Shaped Work in America

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Book Recommendation

Robert Reich

Robert Reich
Former Secretary of Labor

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890). It's difficult to limit my picks, but this one is a clear choice. This wonderful book first alerted the American public to the plight of the low-wage workers who crowded into America's largest city at the end of the 19th century. It helped ignite the Progressive movement and influenced Frances Perkins' early thinking about workers' rights. I first read it when I was in my teens—and couldn't put it down. 

Upton Sinclair, The Jungle (1906). Equally important to that formative era was The Jungle, which was the first to expose—in Sinclair's words—"the inferno of exploitation" of the typical American factory worker, using Chicago's meatpacking industry as a case in point. The book caused Teddy Roosevelt to send Labor Commissioner Charles P. Neill to Chicago to investigate and spurred passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. Reading it in my teens in the early sixties, it was my first encounter with "muckraking" journalism—later termed "investigative reporting."

Michael Harrington, The Other America (1962). It was also in the early sixties that I came across this book, which introduced me to a part of the American workforce I didn't know. When I was growing up my father, sold inexpensive dresses to the wives of factory workers, but I had no contact with the 25 percent of the nation who were then in poverty. The book inspired Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, and inspired me to get involved. 

Barbara Ehrenreich, Nickel and Dimed (2001). More recently I found this book particularly insightful. I wasn't happy when Bill Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform act because I worried that it would imperil too many of that nation's most vulnerable people. Ehrenreich's personal experiences as an undercover journalist—trying to live as a low-wage worker and deal with the consequences of the act—substantiated my concerns. The fact that today roughly 22 percent of America's children are living in poverty shows how far we've strayed from the ideals we profess.

Adam Reich, With God On Our Side: The Struggle for Workers' Rights in a Catholic Hospital (2012). Modesty prevents me from mentioning any of my own books, but it doesn't stop me as a proud father from including a book written by one of my sons. This book chronicles my son Adam's experiences as a volunteer organizer for the Service Employees International Union during the campaign to unionize Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in California. Owned and run by an order of nuns who did everything they could to prevent the hospital's workers from forming a union, the book also explores the intersections between labor and religion, when management and workers believe they have "God on their side." In the end, the workers got their union. I don't think I'm partial when I say the book is riveting.

Robert Reich was the 22nd U.S. Secretary of Labor, serving from 1993 to 1997.

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