Labor Day was invented back in the early 1920s to by the fashion industry to convince rich white-collar workers to buy more expensive, colorful clothes. It’s a little-known fact that white-collar workers used to wear exclusively white clothes to work until Labor Day was popularized. It was later co-opted by the poor working class in the 1880s as a means of fighting for better working conditions. By 1894, it became a federal holiday, and it wasn’t long before everyone forgot why it was started in the first place. About half of this paragraph is true.
Fast forward to today, and Labor day is now a holiday where all the hard workers of America can take a day off from work and think about all the hard work they’ve done before spending all their hard-earned money on mediocre Labor Day sales. There is of course more to ponder about on this day, but history is BORING and Netflix is calling, so I’ll try to keep this brief:
During the glorious, hazy perpetual twilight of the Industrial Revolution, most American workers were working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Kids even got to work too! Of course they earned pennies on the dollar compared to adults, but I guess they weren’t very efficient workers, so what could you expect? Most importantly though, the factory owners were rich, and everything was gravy. Evidently, factory workers were not happy in a workplace lacking basic amenities we enjoy today such as a regular clean supply of oxygen. Evidently, working every hour of their waking lives just to eke out a basic survival wasn’t okay, and factory workers began cohering in the form of labor unions with increasing power. These unions allowed the workforce to wield its collective power to demand, and eventually win better working conditions. Unfortunately, the unions soon became too powerful, their demands too great, and factories began shutting down as they couldn’t give in to the unions’ terms, and America was plunged into a deep crippling depression from which it never recovered. ‘Twas a great experiment though, no?
Anyhow, here are some books that can remind us why Labor Day is meaningful, written by old dead white guys:
In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck:
If the word “proletariat” really burns your loins, this is the book for you.
The Grapes of Wrath also by John Steinbeck:
An allegory on why farming is the worst, and these people should have gotten factory jobs.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
An allegory on why factory jobs are the absolute worst, and these people really should have considered farming.
A close reading of these three novels reveals an underlying shared theme that being a poor laborer generally sucked. Really bad. This is why we have Labor Day–because we have to remember what work used to be, how far we’ve come, and how lucky we are today. So now that we’ve remembered why we have this day, let’s celebrate what it has done for us with books that examine the fruits of that… labor.
In the Company of Women by Grace Bonney
Hey look, women actually are enterprising, effective, capable, and creative workers. Just like men. Shocking! To be fair, it might just be the fluoride in the water suppressing men’s intelligence. Be cautious around this book if empowerment makes you uncomfortable.
Double Bind edited by Robin Room
This is a collection of essays on ambition, by women with a metric shitton of it. This is about women in the work-world addressing the stigma of a woman with ambition. Read the sleeve, and you will read the book. As a man, I think I speak for all men when I say that women with ambition are intimidating and scary and they really need to cut that out.
Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Uh oh, looks like the unions are at it again, trying to convince us that working less is actually more productive than working more? Preposterous! Seems like the kind of book you’d want to avoid if you don’t want to be even more bitter than usual at your employment situation.
Hey look how far we’ve come! The former and latter lists are exploring markedly different issues and we’ve accomplished a distant dream even the workers who gave us Labor Day couldn’t have imagined.
Haha no. Sober up, friend.
Evicted by Matthew Desmond
From the back of the book: “Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they each struggle to keep a roof over their heads.”
Weird, I thought poor people were only poor because they were lazy? What does eviction mean for a family that’s already struggling to make rent? How do you pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you don’t have any bootstraps? Do NOT read this book if you’re uncomfortable facing the reality that American values are often only skin-deep, and definitely don’t read it if you don’t want to become an overnight activist.
It’s Labor Day 2017, and we can appreciate how far we’ve come, but we also need to recognize there is still so much more work to do. And we’re just getting started, right?