Established by the federal government after the Pullman strike in 1894, Labor Day now has a lot more to do with getting bargains at the mall than honoring labor on the streets. With union membership falling to its lowest level since 1916, the holiday seems either more necessary or more irrelevant than ever. After all, last week’s walk-out by the nation’s fast-food workers felt about as disruptive as a day without an Egg McMuffin.
All the more reason to take advantage of the time off to read or re-read a good novel about the struggles of ordinary workers in this country. Feel free to add your own recommendations to this eclectic list in the Comments section below.
1. “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street,” by Herman Melville (1853). Okay, so I’m cheating right off the bat. No, this isn’t a novel, but it’s possibly the most depressing story ever written about the enervating effects of dull office work. I would prefer not to.
2. “The Jungle,” by Upton Sinclair (1906). Sinclair’s exposé of conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking plants shocked the nation and led to federal legislation for food safety, but brought little relief to the exploited workers.
3. “The Grapes of Wrath,” by John Steinbeck (1939). The Joads’ hopeless struggle to find work has defined the Depression for generations of Americans.
4. “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison (1987). An indelible portrait of the cruelties and lingering effects of America’s most perverse and sustained abuse of labor — Southern slavery.
5. “The Tortilla Curtain,” by T. Coraghessan Boyle (1995). A Mexican couple sneaks into California looking for work, but finds only hostility and hardship in this dramatic parable of America’s immigration debate.
6. “Triangle,” by Katharine Weber (2006). A novel about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 that killed 146 workers and inspired major workplace reform in New York.
7. “Then We Came to the End,” by Joshua Ferris (2007). When layoffs hit a Chicago ad agency, the workers’ true colors come out in this comic novel about modern employment insecurity.
8. “Last Night at the Lobster,” by Stewart O’Nan (2007). This quietly moving story chronicles the last day of a Red Lobster restaurant at a depressed shopping mall. Clear-eyed insight into the way millions of people work and get laid off in America.
9. “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving,” by Jonathan Evison (2012). The author, who once worked as a personal care attendant, presents a refreshingly unsentimental, even funny story about a ruined man forced into this crucial, but low-paying occupation.
10. “Dissident Gardens,” by Jonathan Lethem (to be published Sept. 10, 2013). What’s a passionate American Communist to do once the Party has expelled her and collapsed? Rage on! (We’ll have a review of this forthcoming novel on Sept. 11.)