Invisible Labor Redux

Recently, I learned that the Connecticut legislature is considering a bill that would mandate coverage of labor history in high school curricula. I was surprised. And interested. At a time when there are immense pressures to align curriculum --  ever more narrowly --  to standardized tests, these Connecticut politicians were advocating for material that is unlikely ever to appear on a high-stakes test.

What makes it even more interesting is that the legislation is urging the study of labor history. Let’s face it, unions are in drastic decline in this country and the political climate is as hostile to labor as it has ever been -- so much so that the U.S. is cited by international democracy and human rights organizations as a country where basic worker rights are routinely violated, in law and in practice.

There has been little public outcry over the years as unions have weakened, although some commentators (here, here) have recently noted that the decline of unions has tracked the decline of real wages and the rise of wealth inequality.  In this context, the economic benefits that unions bring to individual workers (through good wages and benefits) have long been recognized by the World Bank and others, see here, and here for example.   In cross-national studies, the Bank has also noted the ‘negative correlation’ between high rates of union density and collective bargaining coverage, and wage inequality and variance.

Although most observers would agree that there are lots of reasons for union weakness, the Albert Shanker Institute, together with the American Labor Studies Center (ALSC), recently highlighted one that is often overlooked – labor history doesn’t get much attention in standard high school history textbooks, and when it does, it is marked by omissions, distortions and a focus on violent conflict. The continuing, positive impact of workers – men and women, their organizations and their activism – on U.S. society is simply invisible in our nation’s high schools.  No wonder unions have been saddled with such a negative image: we train our students to think that way.

In this context, it was gratifying to read the testimony of one labor history advocate, Steve Kass of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association, who placed the findings of the Shanker/ALSC’s American Labor History in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story is Distorted in High School History Textbooks, at the heart of his testimony in favor of the Connecticut legislation.  In his statement, Mr. Kass first quotes a Hart poll in which 54 percent of adult respondents say they know little or nothing about unions. Of those who did know something about unions, none had learned what they did know in school. The reasons, he noted, are discussed in the Shanker publication.

It is not just a textbook critique but an accessible resource for teachers and students. It is free and online. Take a look. Who knows? You might learn something.

- Randy Garton

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