Despite the importance of unions in our lives, our schools pay only slight attention to that importance – or even to their existence.
Little is done in the classroom to overcome the negative view of organized labor held by many Americans; little is done to explain the true nature of organized labor.
There have been many attempts to remedy that situation, none more promising than the steps taken recently in Wisconsin with enactment of a law that makes the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining part of the state’s model standards for social studies classes in Wisconsin’s public schools.
The law does not mandate the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining, as its sponsors had wanted. But it amounts to about the same thing by requiring the state superintendent of public instruction to make the subjects part of the state’s educational standards and to provide schools and teachers assistance in teaching labor subjects.
The Wisconsin Labor History Society, the state AFL-CIO and other labor and educational groups worked a dozen years to finally win enactment of the law, the first such state law anywhere. But the History Society fully expects other states to follow Wisconsin’s example.
The importance of including labor history in the classroom was underscored effectively in the latest issue of the American Federation of Teachers journal, American Educator.
“With the key protections for workers that unions have gained under attack,” said a journal article, “there is a greater need for the next generation to understand the real role of working men and women in building the nation and making it a better place.”
James Green, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, explains that, in studying labor, students learn important lessons – above all, “the contributions that generations of union activists have made to building a nation and democratizing and humanizing its often brutal workplaces.”
Fred Glass, communications director of the California Federation of Teachers, provides an ideal primer for students studying labor. His summary is an excellent guide to what they should know about labor – a guide to what we should all know.
“Some people,” said Glass, “interpret the decline of organized labor as if unions belong to the past and have no role to play in the global economy of the 21st century. They point to the numbers and say that workers are choosing not to join unions anymore.
“The real picture is more complex and contradicts this view. Most workers would prefer to belong to unions if they could. But many are being prevented from joining, rather than choosing not to join.”
Unions, Glass concludes, “remain the best guarantee of economic protection and political advocacy for workers. But as unions shrink, fewer people know what unions are, and what they do. And fewer remember what unions have to do with the prosperity of working people.”
That’s what our schools should be teaching, and presumably what they’ll be teaching in Wisconsin shortly, thanks to the new law there. If we’re fortunate, more states will soon follow suit.