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Books to Read This Labor Day

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. (U.S. Department of Labor)

In honor of Labor Day, we’ve gathered together some interesting reads!

In this list: fiction, history of the labor movement, labor issues today.

 

Fiction

Cannery Row Book Cover

Cannery Row

John Steinbeck

Unburdened by the material necessities of the more fortunate, the denizens of Cannery Row discover rewards unknown in more traditional society. Henry the painter sorts through junk lots for pieces of wood to incorporate into the boat he is building, while the girls from Dora Flood’s bordello venture out now and then to enjoy a bit of sunshine. Lee Chong stocks his grocery with almost anything a man could want, and Doc, a young marine biologist who ministers to sick puppies and unhappy souls, unexpectedly finds true love. Cannery Row is just a few blocks long, but the story it harbors is suffused with warmth, understanding, and a great fund of human values.

The Grapes of Wrath Book Cover

The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck

First published in 1939, Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic of the Great Depression chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California. Out of their trials and their repeated collisions against the hard realities of an America divided into haves and have nots evolves a drama that is intensely human yet majestic in its scale and moral vision, elemental yet plainspoken, tragic but ultimately stirring in its human dignity.

The Jungle Book Cover

The Jungle

Upton Sinclair

In this powerful book we enter the world of Jurgis Rudkus, a young Lithuanian immigrant who arrives in America fired with dreams of wealth, freedom, and opportunity. And we discover, with him, the astonishing truth about “packingtown,” the busy, flourishing, filthy Chicago stockyards, where new world visions perish in a jungle of human suffering. Upton Sinclair, master of the “muckraking” novel, here explores the workingman’s lot at the turn of the century: the backbreaking labor, the injustices of “wage-slavery,” the bewildering chaos of urban life. The Jungle, a story so shocking that it launched a government investigation, recreates this startling chapter if our history in unflinching detail. Always a vigorous champion on political reform, Sinclair is also a gripping storyteller, and his 1906 novel stands as one of the most important—and moving—works in the literature of social change.

The Last Ballad Book Cover

The Last Ballad

Wiley Cash

The eagerly awaited next novel from the author of the New York Times bestselling A Land More Kind Than Home about a young mother desperately trying to hold her family together in the years before the Great Depression, a haunting and moving story of cowardice, courage and sacrifice.

The Tortilla Curtain Book Cover

The Tortilla Curtain

T. Coraghessan Boyle

Topanga Canyon is home to two couples on a collision course. Los Angeles liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher lead an ordered sushi-and-recycling existence in a newly gated hilltop community: he a sensitive nature writer, she an obsessive realtor. Mexican illegals Candido and America Rincon desperately cling to their vision of the American Dream as they fight off starvation in a makeshift camp deep in the ravine. And from the moment a freak accident brings Candido and Delaney into intimate contact, these four and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.

Triangle Book Cover

Triangle

Katharine Weber

Esther Gottesfeld is the last living survivor of the notorious 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire and has told her story countless times in the span of her lifetime. Even so, her death at the age of 106 leaves unanswered many questions about what happened that fateful day. How did she manage to survive the fire when at least 146 workers, most of them women, her sister and fiancé among them, burned or jumped to their deaths from the sweatshop inferno? Are the discrepancies in her various accounts over the years just ordinary human fallacy, or is there a hidden story in Esther’s recollections of that terrible day?

 

History of The Labor Movement

The Belles of New England: The Women of The Textile Mills And The Families Whose Wealth They Wove Book Cover

The Belles of New England: The Women of The Textile Mills And The Families Whose Wealth They Wove

William Moran

The Belles of New England is the story of one group of pioneers in the American labor movement—the thousands of women who left New England farm towns to work in the textile cities that sprang up in the region in the early nineteenth century. Their goal was to achieve personal independence, their mission social justice. At a time when women had no political influence, they battled powerful mill owners for fair pay and decent working conditions.

The Boys In The Bunkhouse: Servitude And Salvation In The Heartland Book Cover

The Boys In The Bunkhouse: Servitude And Salvation In The Heartland

Dan Barry

A full-length account of the author’s prize-winning New York Times story chronicles the exploitation and abuse case of a group of developmentally disabled workers, who for 25 years, were forced to work under harrowing conditions for virtually no wages until tenacious advocates helped them achieve their freedom.

The End of Loyalty: The Rise And Fall of Good Jobs In America Book Cover

The End of Loyalty: The Rise And Fall of Good Jobs In America

Rick Wartzman

In this richly detailed and eye-opening book, Rick Wartzman chronicles the erosion of the relationship between American companies and their workers. Through the stories of four major employers—General Motors, General Electric, Kodak, and Coca-Cola — he shows how big businesses once took responsibility for providing their workers and retirees with an array of social benefits. At the height of the post-World War II economy, these companies also believed that worker pay needed to be kept high in order to preserve morale and keep the economy humming. Productivity boomed. But the corporate social contract didn’t last. By tracing the ups and downs of these four corporate icons over seventy years, Wartzman illustrates just how much has been lost: job security and steadily rising pay, guaranteed pensions, robust health benefits, and much more. Charting the Golden Age of the 1950s and 1960s; the turbulent years of the 1970s and 1980s; and the growth of downsizing, outsourcing, and instability in the modern era, Wartzman’s narrative is a biography of the American Dream gone sideways. Deeply researched and compelling, The End of Loyalty will make you rethink how Americans can begin to resurrect the middle class.

From The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor In The United States Book Cover

From The Folks Who Brought You The Weekend: A Short, Illustrated History of Labor In The United States

Priscilla Murolo and A.B. Chitty

From indentured servants and slaves in seventeenth-century Chesapeake to high-tech workers in contemporary Silicon Valley, this books puts a human face on the people, places, events, and social conditions that have shaped the evolution of organized labor.

Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle For Workers' Rights At Wal-Mart Book Cover

Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle For Workers’ Rights At Wal-Mart

Liza Featherstone

On television, Wal-Mart employees are smiling women delighted with their jobs. But reality is another story. In 2000, Betty Dukes, a 52-year-old black woman in Pittsburg, California, became the lead plaintiff in Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores , a class action representing 1.4 million women. In an explosive investigation of this historic lawsuit, journalist Liza Featherstone reveals how Wal-Mart, a self-styled “family-oriented,” Christian company: Deprives women (but not men) of the training they need to advance—Relegates women to lower-paying jobs, like selling baby clothes, reserving the more lucrative positions for men—Inflicts punitive demotions on employees who object to discrimination—Exploits Asian women in its sweatshops in Saipan, a U.S. commonwealth. Featherstone reveals the creative solutions Wal-Mart workers around the country have found-like fighting for unions, living-wage ordinances, and childcare options. Selling Women Short combines the personal stories of these employees with superb investigative journalism to show why women who work low-wage jobs are getting a raw deal, and what they are doing about it.

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America Book Cover

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America

David Von Drehle

New York City, 1911. As the workday was about to end, a fire broke out in the Triangle shirtwaist factory of Greenwich Village. Within minutes it consumed the building’s upper three stories. Firemen were powerless to rescue those trapped inside: their ladders simply weren’t tall enough. People on the street watched in horror as desperate workers jumped to their deaths. Triangle is both a harrowing chronicle of the Triangle shirtwaist fire and a vibrant portrait of an era. It follows the waves of Jewish and Italian immigration that supplied New York City’s garment factories with cheap, mostly female labor. It portrays the Dickensian work conditions that led to a massive waist-worker’s strike in which an unlikely coalition of socialists, socialites, and suffragettes took on bosses, police, and magistrates. And it shows how a public outcry over the fire led to an unprecedented alliance between labor reformers and Tammany Hall politicians.

Labor Issues Today

Capital In The Twenty-First Century Book Cover

Capital In The Twenty-First Century

Thomas Piketty

What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In this work the author analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality. He shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx. But we have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality as much as we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality, the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth, today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values if political action is not taken. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, the author says, and may do so again. This original work reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today.

Glass House: The 1% Economy And The Shattering of The All-American Town Book Cover

Glass House: The 1% Economy And The Shattering of The All-American Town

Brian Alexander

In 1947, Forbes magazine declared Lancaster, Ohio, the epitome of the all-American town. Today it is damaged, discouraged, and fighting for its future. In Glass House, journalist Brian Alexander uses the story of one town to show how seeds sown thirty-five years ago have sprouted to give us Trumpism, inequality, and an eroding national cohesion.

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard And Being Broke In The Richest Country On Earth Book Cover

Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard And Being Broke In The Richest Country On Earth

Sarah Smarsh

During Smarsh’s turbulent childhood in Kansas in the ’80s and ’90s, the forces of cyclical poverty and the country’s changing economic policies solidified her family’s place among the working poor. Her personal history affirms the corrosive impact intergenerational poverty can have on individuals, families, and communities. Combining memoir with powerful analysis and cultural commentary, this is an uncompromising look at class, identity, and the particular perils of having less in a country known for its excess.

Hidden America: From Coal Miners To Cowboys, An Extraordinary Exploration of The Unseen People Who Make This Country Work Book Cover

Hidden America: From Coal Miners To Cowboys, An Extraordinary Exploration of The Unseen People Who Make This Country Work

Jeanne Marie Laskas

Looks at the remarkable men and women whose low-profile accomplishments contribute to the running of the nation, from coal miners and oil rig workers to migrant laborers and air traffic controllers.

The Job: Work And Its Future In A Time of Radical Change Book Cover

The Job: Work And Its Future In A Time of Radical Change

Ellen Ruppel Shell

In a brilliant but sobering work of journalism, Ellen Ruppel Shell takes a hard look at the forces that are reshaping the nature of work in America, overturning the often espoused mythology that retraining workers in software, engineering, and the sciences is the key to job security and career success, and achieving the middle-class dream in the future. In a wide-ranging narrative that takes us from a downsized marketing executive in Massachusetts, to a father of three in Appalachia finding purpose and meaning working in a convenience store chain, to an unemployed autoworker retraining in “advanced manufacturing,” Shell reveals how work is essential to our flourishing and psychological well-being—and how so many of the avenues to well-paid and meaningful work will be challenged in the years ahead. The future of work is not being faced openly. We live in a world where the rewards of employment are concentrated in the hands of the few. Today, the top 10 percent of wage earners in the U.S. bring home 9 times the income of the other 90 percent, and the top.01 percent earn 184 times as much. The economic gap between the few and the many is so vast, Shell says, that we might as well be members of a different species. Moreover, since the 1970s, real wages for most of us have stagnated, and with it our purchasing power. Half of all Americans earn less than $30,000 a year. And the paths to landing those good-paying jobs that secure our financial future are disappearing in the wake of automation and the rise of AI.

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, And A Mother's Will To Survive Book Cover

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, And A Mother’s Will To Survive

Stephanie Land

A journalist describes the years she worked in low-paying domestic work under wealthy employers, contrasting the privileges of the upper-middle class to the realities of the overworked laborers supporting them. At 28, Stephanie Land’s dreams—breaking free from the roots of her hometown in the Pacific Northwest, attending a university, and becoming a writer—were cut short when a summer fling turned into an unexpected pregnancy. She turned to housekeeping to make ends meet, working days and taking college classes online. She also began to write relentlessly. She wrote the true stories that weren’t being told: the stories of overworked and underpaid Americans. Of living on food stamps and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) coupons to eat. Of the government programs that provided her housing, but that doubled as halfway houses. The aloof government employees who called her lucky for receiving assistance while she didn’t feel lucky at all. She wrote to remember the fight, to eventually cut through the deep-rooted stigmas of the working poor. Her memoir explores the underbelly of upper-middle class America and the reality of what it’s like to be in service to them. “I’d become a nameless ghost,” Stephanie writes about her relationship with her clients, many of whom do not know her from any other cleaner, but who she learns plenty about. As she begins to discover more about her clients’ lives—their sadness and love, too—she begins to find hope in her own path.

Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America Book Cover

Nickel And Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America

Barbara Ehrenreich

Millions of Americans work full-time, year-round, for poverty-level wages. In 1998, the author decided to join them. She was inspired in part by the rhetoric surrounding welfare reform, which promised that a job, any job, could be the ticket to a better life. But how does anyone survive, let alone prosper, on six to seven dollars an hour? To find out, she left her home, took the cheapest lodgings she could find, and accepted whatever jobs she was offered as a woefully inexperienced homemaker returning to the workforce. So began a grueling, hair raising, and darkly funny odyssey through the underside of working America. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, she worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. Very quickly, she discovered that no job is truly “unskilled,” that even the lowliest occupations require exhausting mental and muscular effort. She also learned that one job is not enough; you need at least two if you intend to live indoors.

Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century Book Cover

Nomadland: Surviving America In The Twenty-First Century

Jessica Bruder

Employers have discovered a new, low-cost labor pool, made up largely of transient older Americans. Finding that social security comes up short, often underwater on mortgages, these invisible casualties of the Great Recession have taken to the road by the tens of thousands in late-model RVs, travel trailers, and vans, forming a growing community of nomads: migrant laborers who call themselves “workampers.” Bruder hits the road to get to know her subjects, accompanying them from job to job in the dark underbelly of the American economy, while celebrating their resilience and creativity.

The Price of Inequality: [How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future] Book Cover

The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future

Joseph E. Stiglitz

This work examines how the wealthy classes have contributed to growing inequality in society and explains how the quest to increase wealth has hindered the country’s economic growth as well as its efforts to solve its most pressing economic problems. In it the author, a Nobel Prize-winning economist puts forth a forceful argument against America’s vicious circle of growing inequality. America currently has the most inequality, and the least equality of opportunity, among the advanced countries. While market forces play a role in this stark picture, politics has shaped those market forces. Here the author exposes the efforts of well-heeled interests to compound their wealth in ways that have stifled true, dynamic capitalism. Along the way he examines the effect of inequality on our economy, our democracy, and our system of justice. He explains how inequality affects and is affected by every aspect of national policy, and offers a vision for a more just and prosperous future, supported by a concrete program to achieve that vision.

Tightrope: Americans Reaching For Hope Book Cover

Tightrope: Americans Reaching For Hope

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

A plea—deeply personal and told through the lives of real Americans—to address the crisis in working-class America, while focusing on solutions to mend a half century of governmental failure.

Working In The Shadows: A Year of Doing The Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do Book Cover

Working In The Shadows: A Year of Doing The Jobs (Most) Americans Won’t Do

Gabriel Thompson

What is it like to do the back-breaking work of immigrants? To find out, Gabriel Thompson spent a year working alongside Latino immigrants, who initially thought he was either crazy or an undercover immigration agent. He stooped over lettuce fields in Arizona, and worked the graveyard shift at a chicken slaughterhouse in rural Alabama. He dodged taxis—not always successfully—as a bicycle delivery “boy” for an upscale Manhattan restaurant, and was fired from a flower shop by a boss who, he quickly realized, was nuts.

A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, And How We Should Respond Book Cover

A World Without Work: Technology, Automation, And How We Should Respond

Daniel Susskind

From mechanical looms to the combustion engine to the first computers, new technologies have always provoked panic about workers being replaced by machines. For centuries, such fears have been misplaced, and many economists maintain that they remain so today. But as Daniel Susskind demonstrates, this time really is different. Breakthroughs in artificial intelligence mean that all kinds of jobs are increasingly at risk.