For most of us, Labor Day is a rather vague, 3-day weekend.
Here in Minnesota, it’s normally a time to button up the cabin for winter and take in the Minnesota State Fair.
How did this federal holiday arrive on the calendar in the first place?
It has a much grittier history than the current sleepy holiday suggests!
You probably already know that in the late 1800s the average American worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, just to eke out a basic living.
Many children as young as 5 or 6 worked in mills, factories, and mines, for a pittance in wages.
People of all ages, particularly the very poor and recent immigrants,
routinely faced extremely unsafe, inhumane working conditions.
Labor unions began organizing strikes to protest poor conditions and push employers to treat workers more justly.
Momentum gathered. In 1882, a parade of 10,000 workers marched in New York City.
An idea for a holiday celebrating workers began to catch on around the country.
But it wasn’t until 1894 that Congress finally acted on it,
the final push being the Pullman workers’ strike in Chicago.
The year before, during a severe recession, the Pullman company, which manufactured railway cars, had lowered workers’ wages.
Yet in their factory town they kept rent prices steady for company housing
and did not lower costs of products in company stores. It was financially untenable for their workers.
Not only did Pullman factory workers go on strike over this, but the Railroad Union called for its members across the country to refuse to run trains that included Pullman cars.
A nationwide transportation nightmare ensued,
and when federal forces were sent to break up the strikes, enormous, widespread chaos and violence erupted.
In the wake of that, as a sort of peace offering to organized labor
Congress created Labor Day.
(Dear Laborers, So sorry we crushed you. Have a day off on us. Yours truly, Congress.)
If your interest is piqued, I see that a book came out last year about this whole affair:
The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America, by Jack Kelly.
The COVID-19 pandemic this year has again shone a spotlight on the invaluable services
provided by so many unheralded, underpaid American workers,
often not unionized and incapable of pressing employers for better working conditions and just treatment.
That makes Labor Day 2020 a great time to draw our attention to the dignity of laborers
and the struggle for just working conditions.
These ten books are a great way to do that!
First up, 4 picture books celebrating workers of all sorts:
written by Karen Hesse, illustrated by G. Brian Karas
published in 2018 by Candlewick Press
On Friday nights, one little boy straps on his helmet, swings onto the back of Dad’s motorcycle, and rides through the dusky city to the school where Dad works as a night janitor.
While Dad sweeps, spritzes, and mops, this little guy plays, helps out, and snoozes until dawn, when the two of them ride back home to rest together and dream. The tender relationship between dad and son in this story is priceless, and the story provides a welcome window on under-appreciated workers and working class families. An affectionate gem for ages 4 and up.
written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland
published in 2007 by Bloomsbury Children’s Books
There’s a whole lot of busy people working all night long, and this book will introduce you to them in razzamatazz style!
From window dressers gussying up store mannequins to wild-eyed DJs spinning tunes; bridge painters slapping paint on ginormous city bridges and doughnut bakers turning out dozens and dozens of chocolate sprinkle confections. So many people are busy doing such incredibly interesting things!
Hartland acquaints us with fourteen cool workers, illustrating them with bold strokes, bright colors and all-around pizzazz! Lots of fun details are tucked into her paintings, so don’t turn the pages too fast. Ages 4 and up.
written by Gary Paulsen, illustrated by Ruth Wright Paulsen
published in 1997 by Harcourt Brace
From carpenters and steelworkers to nurses and ice cream scoopers, this simple, brief narrative sets forth the beauty, variety, and rhythm of honest, hard work.
Paulsen’s lines, just a few words per page, are unadorned yet poetic as he calls our attention to the useful, helpful, jobs that enrich our lives. His voice evokes strength, provision, care, and community. The paean ends with a well-earned rest at end of day, which rejuvenates us for “the next day’s song.”
Illustrated in lovely, dignified oil paintings that convey warmth, worth, and respectability, each occupation pictured hums with vital interest. A lovely look at human creativity and work for ages 3 and up.
Town is by the Sea, written by Joanne Schwartz, illustrated by Sydney Smith
published in 2017 by Groundwood Books
This award-winning book tells the story of a young boy living in a mining town on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
The vast sparkling sea spreads out before him. Lupines line sunny roadsides. It looks like an idyllic place to live. Yet punctuating his narrative, interrupting all this light, are thoughts of his dad at work deep under the sea, digging for coal. The juxtaposition of fresh air and sea-blues with body-buckling darkness, tons of coal hulking over hunched miners, is incredible.
An Author’s Note tells how from the late 1800s up to the 1950s when this story takes place, young boys grew up knowing they would follow in their fathers’ footsteps, spending twelve-hour days in “the harsh, dangerous, dark reality underground.” A stunning book for ages 5 through adult.
Next, 5 nonfiction accounts about important reformers in the world of labor:
Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers, written by Sarah Warren, illustrated by Robert Casilla
published in 2012 by Marshall Cavendish Children’s
Teacher, listener, friend. Organizer, defender, peacemaker. Dolores Huerta filled many roles in her work, campaigning on behalf of migrant workers in California.
Raise your awareness of the unjust treatment of farm laborers and your gratitude for the calloused hands that put food on your table, even in the midst of a global pandemic, with this warm account of Huerta’s groundbreaking work. Ages 4 and up.
Harvesting Hope: The Story of Cesar Chavez, written by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Yuyi Morales
published in 2003 by Harcourt
Cesar Chavez was ten when his family lost their magnificent, 80-acre, Arizona ranch which held so many happy memories. It was 1937, and massive droughts drove them to join hundreds of thousands of others moving to California, seeking migrant farm work. There they were confronted with a shed for a home, and the grim life of labor on another’s land with physically punishing work, meager wages, and no opportunity for education.
Chavez eventually joined those advocating for change in legal rights for migrant workers. In time, he led them to the first contract signed on behalf of farm workers in America.
A powerful account of justice-seeking, and an inspiring look at one who took on a role that needing doing despite feelings of inadequacy. An Author’s Note gives a more complex account of Chavez, including the hunger strikes he underwent which eventually took his life at age 66. Ages 6 and up.
Brave Girl: Clara and the Shirtwaist Makers’ Strike of 1909
written by Michelle Markel, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
published in 2013 by Balzer + Bray
At the turn of the century, in New York City, tens of thousands of young, immigrant women and girls — some as young as 6 years old — were working in garment factories sewing blouses in abominable conditions.
Enter Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who was incensed over the wretched lives of the factory girls. She began urging them to strike, and her courage and rallying cry finally roused them to action in the “largest walkout of women workers in U.S. history.”
Despite the cruelties of this story, both author and illustrator have struck a strong, up-beat tone throughout the book. It’s a mighty collaboration, for ages 6 and up.
Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor
written by Russell Freedman, photography by Lewis Hine
published in 1994 by Clarion Books
This is a riveting photobiography of Lewis Hine, who courageously, secretly, amassed photographic evidence of the abysmal, dangerous working conditions for young children during the years 1908-1918.
Hine’s shocking photos and groundbreaking work helped bring about critical social reforms. It’s been years since I’ve read this but it has left an indelible impression on me. Ages 11 through adult.
Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop: The Sanitation Strike of 1968
written by Alice Faye Duncan, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
published in 2018 by Calkins Creek
This impactful narrative is based in part on the memories of one who as a young child participated in the Memphis sanitation strike along with her parents. The strike took place from February 12 to April 16, 1968, and was grievously punctuated by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Enter this child’s world of rats scuttling through piles of uncollected trash, a father grieved and angered by the deaths of his sanitation co-workers, lively rallies swelled with freedom-singing, blood-spattered riots, a booming mountaintop oratory, and DJs weeping on-air over the loss of Dr. King.
Such a robust account of this pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement illustrated with R. Gregory Christie’s distinctive art, blazing with heat, pulsing with dignity and determination. Ages 8 and up.
Lastly, two longer pieces for older readers spotlighting unjust working conditions:
The Journal of Otto Peltonen, A Finnish Immigrant, by William Durbin
published in 2000 by Scholastic
Minnesotans or anyone of Finnish descent will especially love this historical-fiction account of a 15-year-old immigrant boy growing up in a northern Minnesota mining town at the turn of the century.
As newly-arrived immigrants, the Peltonen family did not find their new American life easy. As time goes by, Otto is forced to abandon his education in order to help his family survive. He joins his father in their journeys deep underground in the dangerous, difficult job of iron mining. When Otto’s father joins a miners’ strike against United States Steel, the first billion-dollar industry in U.S. history, we see just how courageous these early reformers had to be. It’s an eye-opening, captivating story for ages 11 and up.
The Bitter Side of Sweet, by Tara Sullivan
published in 2016 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Amadou, age 15, and his little brother Seydou have been tricked. With little to eat in their Ivoirian village, the two of them boarded a bus under the impression they’d be taken somewhere they could earn a bit of money and food. That was years ago. In actuality, they were brought to a remote cacao plantation where they have been enslaved, brutally forced to harvest, prepare, and ship the cocoa beans that enrich the corrupt businessmen at the top of the food chain. Attempts at escape result in heinous beatings. Now a young girl has arrived at the camp for the first time. Her will to escape will light new fires of determination in the two brothers.
This is a tense, brutal, shocking novel that sheds light on the horrifying child-slave labor used to produce chocolate for the world’s markets. While parts of the book read a bit more like an exposé, the struggle of these three kids, fighting for freedom with everything they’ve got, is a harrowing, gripping story. Ages 15 to adult.