May Day: The Best Books about Workers’ Rights

1st May 2014

May Day: The Best Books about Workers' Rights
With the annual May Day protests happening across the UK this week we've decided to look at the historical and global struggle for workers' rights. So's here a list of the best fiction and non-fiction books about the worker's struggle, as chosen by For Books' Sake contributors...

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, 1997

This debut novel depicts the confusing and heartbreaking consequences of India’s caste system through a fractured, non-linear narrative.

Set in Aymanam in southern India, it explores political unrest, social discrimination and forbidden love through the eyes of a young girl whose family owns a pickle factory.

The low pay and disrespect that ‘untouchable’ factory workers are subjected to gives rise to communist protests that have a different type of significance for each member of the family. Those who try to break out of the rigid social and political structures are duly punished, but never forgotten.

Nominated by: Rosie Tallant

Women: the Longest Revolution by Juliet Mitchell, 1966

First published in the New Left Review, this pamphlet was adopted by the Women’s Movement heralding second-wave feminism in the UK.

Written against Frantz Fanon’s idea that women should be emancipated only after a revolution, Juliet Mitchell, now Professor Emeritus at Jesus College, Cambridge, addresses the gap in economics and social theory on the value of women’s work and the invisibility of their position inside the nuclear family.

She critiques capitalism’s notion that such a family is an inevitable model for an advanced society. Drawing on Marx, on psychoanalysis, on literature, this seminal piece still resonates and challenges contemporary conditions for women all over the world.

Nominated by: Preti Taneja

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, 2009

Part novelisation, part political account, Nothing to Envy cuts through the propaganda and misinformation about North Korea and instead focuses on the lives of those that Kim Jong Il’s regime affected.

The personal accounts are in parts funny, compelling and deeply heartbreaking, and the minutiae of citizen’s lives can often be much more incisive than a dry overview of the bureaucracy of politics. It’s a compelling read that gives a truly affecting insight into the everyday lives of North Koreans.

Nominated by: Emily Reynolds

Women Against Pit Closures – as these groups were collectively known – offered miners’ wives like Mandy the opportunity to make their voices heard in what was primarily a male-dominated sphere.Anatomy of a Miracle by Patti Waldmeir, 1997/8

A panoramic assessment of the origins, development and end of apartheid in South Africa, written by the former Johannesburg bureau chief for the Financial Times.

Before writing this book Waldmeir had witnessed all the major events in 1980s South Africa and talked to virtually everyone involved, so she’s able to give us both sides of the battle in a much more rounded history than most.

Her focus on the politicians occasionally denigrates the huge role that the South African populus played in ending apartheid, but that’s a minor niggle. Completely fascinating: an academic work that manages to be a character-driven thriller as well.

Nominated by: Jennie Gillions

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann, 2011

Jacob is on the run from the law when he ends up as a soldier in Cromwell’s army. There, he falls in with the radical Christopher Ferris and ends up working on a back-to-the-land experiment whose belief in worker ownership of the means of production feels revolutionary now, let alone for 1645.

Meanwhile, his passionate affair with Ferris places him in even more danger (and gives the reader some of the best man-on-man sex scenes I’ve ever read, if you’re into that sort of thing). Brilliantly researched, evocative, and heartbreaking.

Nominated by: Margaret Houston

Can the Subaltern Speak? by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, (1985)

With immense erudition, Spivak takes on intellectuals including Michel Foucault and Gilles Delueze to remind us that those who are excluded from capitalism and cultural imperialism cannot ‘speak’.

Through their economic, class and gender marginalisation, they occupy a space of difference from which they cannot be understood. Nor can the most disadvantages be represented – as Spivak says: “You don’t give the subaltern voice. You work for the bloody subaltern, you work against subalternity”.

It’s a tough read but absolutely worth the effort, particularly for its discussion of sati (widow immolation) to illustrate its argument.

Nominated by: Preti Taneja

Public Battles, Private Wars by Laura Wilkinson, 2014

Public Battles, Private Wars takes us to the fictional Yorkshire village of Fenley Down, where Mandy Walker, a twenty-three year-old mother of four young children, is married to Rob, a handsome, hard-drinking miner…

Mandy’s story is based on the experience of many others like her, in what quickly became a national movement. Women Against Pit Closures – as these groups were collectively known – offered miners’ wives like Mandy the opportunity to make their voices heard in what was primarily a male-dominated sphere.

Nominated by: Tara Hanks

Further reading: Bark by Lorrie Moore, Helen Mort’s poetry collection Division Street and The Pink Sari Revolution by Amana Fontanella-Khan.

Are there any other books you’d recommend for May Day reading?

Image via John Englart (Takver)