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Working Class Books: A Labor Day Reading List

You can spend this upcoming weekend grilling and mourning the death of summer, or you can spend the day that was first nationally recognized in 1894 to try and calm down the unionists following the Pullman Strike of the same year. While a chance to cook cased meats (or their vegetarian replacements) and drink some beer is something you should try not to pass up, these books that you should read or reread might help you put things into context a little bit more, and make Labor Day more than just another holiday. 

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Working, Studs Terkel

It’s been a while since we’ve hung out in a high school class, but we don’t think this classic work of nonfiction is being taught to our students, and that’s a damn shame. Terkel’s massive look at what people take away from their jobs — the highs and lows of everyday work — is an American masterpiece, and pretty much the oral history that puts all other ones to shame. 

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The Jungle, Upton Sinclair

And then there’s the book you probably did read in high school, but one that could be reread as a reminder that no matter how bad your job might be, there was a time in America when workers had it way worse. 

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The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

Whether or not we have truly climbed out of the financial mess that started around 2008 still remains to be seen, but Steinbeck’s 1939 classic reminds us of exactly how paralyzing the economic hardship brought on by unemployment can be. 

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The Princess Casamassima, Henry James

Maybe the most political of all the things James ever wrote, this book deserves to be mentioned among these other books because it highlights how bad working conditions can push people towards extreme measures. 

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The script for On the Waterfront, Budd Schulberg

Marlon Brando’s acting and Elia Kazan’s directing obviously didn’t hurt things any, but if you pull Budd Schulberg’s writing from the story of union violence and corruption, it suddenly becomes a whole different film. 

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Revolt On Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis,  Kari Lydersen

Coming out a year after Chicago’s Republic Windows & Doors shut down in the middle of the night without alerting the employees, and the fight that took place when those workers found out, Lydersen stellar work of journalism highlights what happens when workers band together to fight against wrongdoing.

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