Labor Department celebrates 100 years with ‘Books that Shaped Work in America’

A man walks from the US Department of Labor building on May 3, 2013 in Washington, DC. A solid job creation report for April and a fall in the jobless rate to 7.5 percent sweetened the picture for the US economy Friday, amid worries that it has tumbled into a "spring slump." The Labor Department said the economy added a firm 165,000 jobs last month. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKIBRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Washington loves work, Washington loves books, and Washington loves lists.

That’s the idea behind a new online project from the Labor Department called “Books That Shaped Work in America,” a colorful and often unexpected collection of recommended reads from distinguished agency employees both past and present.

From “My Antonia” to “The Wealth of Nations,” all of the books are intended to celebrate the department’s 100th anniversary.

The list covers a broad range of work, including the prize-winning immersion reporting of “Nickel and Dimed,” the 18th century essays of America’s Founding Fathers in “The Federalist Papers” and an irreverent commentary on being stuck in young and restless purgatory in“The Devil Wears Prada.”

The Web site allows users to check out favorite literary picks by various notables, from filmmakers to federal officials such as Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez.

Perez’s favorites include August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of plays about working folks titled “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” as well as “Busy, Busy Town,” which introduced children to “dock workers and doctors; bankers and bakers; lumberjacks and librarians,” as the secretary described it.

The project cuts across political lines, which is somewhat of a relief in light of the current acrimonious climate in Washington.

George P. Shultz, former secretary of labor under President Richard M. Nixon and later secretary of state in the Reagan administration, said he loved to spend his time deep in Walt Whitman’s poetry, which he described as “filled with images of workers on farms, in factories and on boats — heroes of democracy.”

The list also includes books from all sides of the economic debate, from Milton Friedman’s free-market tome “Capitalism and Freedom” to  Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” which liberals often cite in calling for regulation.

The 1869 classic “The Match Boy,” by Horatio Alger Jr., was a pick by John Y. Cole, director of  the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book.

“The formulaic juvenile novels of Alger Jr. are best remembered for the rags-to-riches theme they championed. In these stories, poor city boys rose in social status by working hard and being honest,” Cole wrote.

Carl Fillichio, senior adviser for public affairs and communications and chairman of the Labor Department’s centennial program, conceived and lead the effort. The public is invited to recommend books, as are people who work in the government.

Fillichio picked Michael Lewis’s “Liar’s Poker” as one of his favorites, saying, “The Wall Street of the 1980s isn’t much different from the Wall Street of today.”

Fillichio chose a mid-century call to arms for working women, Rona Jaffe’s “The Best of Everything.” He wrote: “Jaffe meant ‘TBOE’ to be a cautionary tale; instead, it introduced, inspired and induced countless women to the glamour and grit of the American office. The movie version is a classic!”

Below each book is a link to Labor Department divisions that address themes the books cover.

Underneath Luigi Bartolini’s book “Bicycle Thieves” are links to unemployment insurance. And below Madeline Albright’s “Madam Secretary, A Memoir” are links to the Women’s Bureau and International Labor Issues.

The project is part of an effort by the Labor Department to market itself more to the public and show how relevant and perhaps fun the agency can be.

Speaking of fun, past Labor Department anniversaries involved swanky, black-tie affairs as opposed to reading lists and new web sites.

For the department’s 25th anniversary, more than 1,000 people listened to Broadway music at the Mayflower Hotel with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in attendance.


(Labor Department)

For the 50th Anniversary, jumbo Louisiana shrimp cocktail and roast prime rib were served as President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson attended the event along with more than 3,200 guests in March 1963.

(Labor Department photo)
(Labor Department)

This year, the anniversary is all about substance over style, as it focuses on the joy of reading books, plays and poetry. It’s more about brains than bling this time around.

Federal workers, what are your favorite books that shaped your ideas about work?

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