There’s just a week left until Labor Day. For many of us, Labor Day means the end of summer or the beginning of the school year. For others, it means a picnic or a festival. Or perhaps a 5K Fun Run (if you can call a 5K run fun).
Labor Day weekend is a weekend to celebrate, but if it weren’t for the labor movement, we wouldn’t even have weekends. The labor movement limited child labor, improved workplace safety, and gave us the 40 hour work week.
Labor Day—the first Monday in September—celebrates the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of America. Grover Cleveland made Labor Day a federal holiday in 1894 in response to a strike that crippled the railroad system. Federal troops were called in. There were riots. People died.
A couple of years ago, Tracy Abell put together a post about child labor. I encourage you to read it, if you haven’t already. She listed some great books. Read them. And here are some more books about the labor movement and the children involved in it.
Tracy’s post listed two books–Kids at Work: Lewis Hine and the Crusade Against Child Labor by Russell Freedman and Counting on Grace by Elizabeth Winthrop– that feature photographer Lewis Hine and his influential photographs. The photos exposed the horrendous conditions in a way that words couldn’t. His photos spoke truth to power. A Lewis Hine photo graces the cover of another book in Tracy’s post: Growing up in Coal Country by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. In fact, the same photo is used on the cover of this book:
Breaker Boys: How a Photograph Helped End Child Labor by Michael Burgan (Compass Point Books 2011)
From IndieBound: “Child labor was common in the United States in the 19th century. It took the compelling, heart breaking photographs of Lewis Hine and others to bring the harsh working conditions to light. Hine and his fellow Progressives wanted to end child labor. He knew photography would reveal the truth and teach and change the world. With his camera Hine showed people what life was like for immigrants, the poor, and the children working in mines, factories, and mills.”
Like Bread and Roses, Too by Katherine Paterson, which was featured in Tracy’s post, The Bobbin Girl takes place in a textile mill, one of the industries that made extensive use of child labor. (Many of Lewis Hine’s most powerful photos of working children were taken in textile mills.) This particular subject is close to my heart, since my own grandmother was one of those girls. She worked in a silk mill in Paterson, New Jersey after she finished the eighth grade. Because she was gifted academically, the teachers at the high school pleaded with her parents to let her continue her education, but as the eldest of nine siblings, she had to work.
The Bobbin Girl written and illustrated by Emily Arnold McCully (Dial 1996)
From IndieBound: “Rebecca Putney is a bobbin girl who helps support her struggling family by working all day in a hot, noisy cotton mill. Working conditions at the mill are poor, and there is talk of lowering the workers’ wages. Rebecca’s friend Judith wants to protest the pay cut–but troublemakers at the mill are dismissed. Does Rebecca have the courage to join the protest?”
In November 1909, workers, mostly Jewish women, at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York went on strike for shorter hours, better wages, and safer working conditions. The strike grew to include 20,000 garment workers and lasted until March 1910. The following year, a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killed 146 people, the youngest a 14-year-old girl. The next two books–one nonfiction, the other fiction–bring the realities of the sweatshop and the tragedy to life.
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy By Albert Marrin (Knopf Books for Young Readers 2011)
From IndieBound: “On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City burst into flames. The factory was crowded. The doors were locked to ensure workers stay inside . . . It is the story of poor working conditions and greedy bosses, as garment workers discovered the endless sacrifices required to make ends meet. It is the story of unimaginable, but avoidable, disaster. And it the story of the unquenchable pride and activism of fearless immigrants and women who stood up to business, got America on their side, and finally changed working conditions for our entire nation, initiating radical new laws we take for granted today.”
Uprising By Margaret Peterson Haddix (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers 2011)
From IndieBound: Told from alternating points of view, this historical novel draws upon the experiences of three very different young women: Bella, who has just emigrated from Italy and doesn’t speak a word of English; Yetta, a Russian immigrant and crusader for labor rights; and Jane, the daughter of a wealthy businessman. Bella and Yetta work together at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory under terrible conditions . . . Yetta leads the factory’s effort to strike, and she meets Jane on the picket line . . . Through a series of twists and turns, the three girls become fast friends–and all of them are in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on March 25, 1911, the day of the fateful fire.”
The photographs of Lewis Hine and tragedies like the Triangle fire may have prompted changes that improved the lives of American workers. But that didn’t put an end to problems faced by workers. It was complicated . . .
Marching to the Mountaintop: How Poverty, Labor Fights and Civil Rights Set the Stage for Martin Luther King Jr’s Final Hours By Ann Bausum (National Geographic Children’s Books 2012)
From IndieBound: “In early 1968 the grisly on-the-job deaths of two African-American sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, prompted an extended strike by that city’s segregated force of trash collectors. Workers sought union protection, higher wages, improved safety, and the integration of their work force. Their work stoppage became a part of the larger civil rights movement and drew an impressive array of national movement leaders to Memphis, including, on more than one occasion, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
King added his voice to the struggle in what became the final speech of his life. His assassination in Memphis on April 4 not only sparked protests and violence throughout America; it helped force the acceptance of worker demands in Memphis. The sanitation strike ended eight days after King’s death.
The connection between the Memphis sanitation strike and King’s death has not received the emphasis it deserves, especially for younger readers. Marching to the Mountaintop explores how the media, politics, the Civil Rights Movement, and labor protests all converged to set the scene for one of King’s greatest speeches and for his tragic death.”
. . . and the struggle continues.
For a comprehensive look at the role of labor unions in American history, check out Sweat and Blood: A History of U.S. Labor Unions By Gloria Skurzynski (Twenty-First Century Books 2008)
Go ahead, enjoy your Labor Day picnic, but as you serve up the hamburgers and potato salad, give a thought for those who made it possible.
Jacqueline Houtman is the author of The Reinvention of Edison Thomas. Her next book, with coauthors Walter Naegle and Michael G. Long, is Bayard Rustin: The Invisible Activist (Quaker Press). Bayard was an active supporter of the labor movement.