Labor Takes a Seat in the Classroom

By Doster, Adam | In These Times, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Labor Takes a Seat in the Classroom


Doster, Adam, In These Times


Educators are taking steps to bring union history into American schools

A WORKER APPROACHES THE THREE-PERSON National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) panel after filing a union grievance that her boss dismissed on unreasonable grounds. The board consults organized employees, workers with anti-union sensibilities and even the old boss to find out the details. Her complaint? The supervisor canned her because she had blonde hair and blue eyes. After some consultation, the board reaches a verdict. But, in this case, the ruling isn't as important as the process itself.

Mock union battles like this once took place in Paul F. Cole's classroom. Now the secretary-treasurer of the New York State AFL-CIO, Cole taught social studies at Lewiston-Porter Senior High School in Youngstown, N.Y. for 23 years. After becoming active in his local teachers union, he noticed labor history was absent from his lesson plans. So he went about infusing bits and pieces of organized labor into classes-running "organizing campaigns," studying the lives of labor leaders and letting students debate issues like right-to-work legislation. "The goal is not to indoctrinate or proselytize kids. That's unnecessary," Cole says. "The goal is to provide kids with a deeper understanding of the history of the labor movement and the contributions workers have made to our economic, cultural and political history."

Organized labor is rarely discussed in primary or secondary schools, and that is one reason the public is not adequately informed about the role unions have played in American life. A 2001 study by Hart Research found that 54 percent of respondents said they knew little to nothing about unions. Of those that had some knowledge, 37 percent gained it from personal experience, 26 percent from people in unions and 25 percent from the media. "They didn't even ask the question whether they learned anything in school," says Cole. "That's an indictment right there."

Labors omission from K-12 education contributes to a troubling paradox. While a 2004 Zogby poll found that 63 percent of Americans approve of unions, deeming them helpful to workers, employers and the economy at large, union membership continues to decline, falling to 12 percent of the 2006 working population. While labor education is no replacement for reformed labor laws, informing young people about the movement's history and accomplishments may help the movements future.

The old left is left out

Howard Zinn, author of A Peoples History of the United States, says traditional historians overlook the history of working people by focusing on those with excess political capital. "The general orientation of American history is towards the history of people at the top, towards the authority or the establishment," Zinn says. As a result, curricula centers on political, military and business leaders, ignoring the rest.

Others contend that the study of racial and gender struggles in schools, while necessary and valuable, has shifted the focus away from an analysis of class. "My freshman students at college come out of California high schools with the language of race, ethnicity, and identity, and they have great facility with that," says Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "Issues of class and trade unions are often alien to them." He cites César Chávez as a prime example of a progressive labor organizer whose history as a trade unionist is overshadowed by his legacy as an ethnic leader.

Teachers also affect how much exposure students have to labor's stories. In an era marked by high-stakes testing, many teachers must narrow their curricula to exclude non-tested subjects. With little room for experimentation, it's less likely that a stressed teacher, even if well versed in the narrative of la- bor struggles, would cover the 1914 Ludlow Massacre of striking Colorado coal miners at the expense of a topic assured to be on the next assessment. …

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