The Grapes of Wrath as a Study into the Limits of Labour Law

JohnSteinbeckTheGrapesOfWrath
“And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed.”

The Grapes of Wrath [1]

This post examines how the law has limitations to the extent that it can combat repression. The law can be used as a tool to help in the fight towards social justice however society and culture more broadly has to be changed in order for true transformation to be actualized. The law does not exist in a vacuum and is often a mirror of society rather than the reverse. The struggle to achieve workers’ rights in The Grapes of Wrath is never actually attained but the reader is left with the impression that the struggle endures and that one day the workers will achieve true justice.

What prompted me to start writing this paper was my own experience. My own work for the past 10 or so years was what I thought of as, “purely legal”. While in law school myself and two other law students were successful in getting Queen’s University certified as a No Sweat campus which means that everything bearing the Queen’s logo is made under fair working conditions. While my Political Science Undergrad did make me aware that not all problems can be shaped into ‘legal problems’ I had great confidence in the ability of the law to shape change. What better way to strengthen the rights of workers than through changes to legislation? It may be trite but whatever the problem, law was the solution. When faced with issues such as sweatshops there does not seem be a clear path towards regulation in the form of legislation so I then started to reflect on what the limits of the law might be. I explore this through examining the novel The Grapes of Wrath which demonstrates that human kindness and generousity will always triumph over cruelty and miserliness.

How to summarize such an American classic? It is difficult to have a new take on such a widely discussed book. In order to provide context one must know that the book takes place in America in the Dust Bowl as the Joad family travels from Oklahoma to California in search of a better life. The book was published in 1939. They set off for California after seeing fliers stating that farmers out west were in need of workers to pick fruit and that the wages were high. When they arrive in California they find that labour is not in demand as there are too many workers for too few jobs. This lack of work leads to workers willing to undercut the wages of other workers. Eventually there is a strike and strikebreakers (a.k.a. scabs) insist that they have to work in order to feed their families.

The Joad family is very sympathetic and endearing which is something that is lost when reading nonfiction about the same topic. Perhaps that is why it may be easier to stick with nonfiction and keep a safe distance (alienate one’s self) from the story itself. Focus on the plot not the characters. Professor Mark Weisberg at Queen’s challenged us as first year law students to think about the person behind the story. It may be the case that it is too emotionally draining to consider those behind the cases as it overly-humanizes the case, if that is possible. So looking at the law through fiction may bring up emotions that the law sets out to strip away. However, emotions are an unavoidable element of the courtroom.

The main point that I will leave with is that alienation as described by Marx cannot be solved by driving up wages and having better working conditions. In the novel the main characters, the Joad family, start to realize that the true divide between management and workers is the inability of management to see the workers as people and not just numbers. “The Swiss novelist Max Frisch remarked at the time, ‘We imported workers and got men instead.’”[2] This encapsulates the dilemma of management – how to distance one’s self enough from workers to command respect yet not too distant as to be seen as inhumane.

Vanisha H. Sukdeo is a PhD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School


[1] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath, (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), at 249.

[2] Jagdish Bhagwati, In Defense of Globalization, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), at 208.

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