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Labor in High School Textbooks: Bias, Neglect and Invisibility

The nation has just celebrated Labor Day, yet few Americans have any idea why. As high school students, most were taught little about unions—their role, their accomplishments, and how and why they came to exist.

The nation has just celebrated Labor Day, yet few Americans have any idea why. As high school students, most were taught little about unions—their role, their accomplishments, and how and why they came to exist.

This is one of the conclusions of a new report, released today by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center. The report, “American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story Is Distorted in High School History Textbooks,” consists of a review of some of the nation’s most frequently used high school U.S. history textbooks for their treatment of unions in American history. The authors paint a disturbing picture, concluding that the history of the U.S. labor movement and its many contributions to the American way of life are “misrepresented, downplayed or ignored.” Students—and all Americans—deserve better.

Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. As the report notes, “spotty, inadequate, and slanted coverage” of the labor movement dates at least to the New Deal era. Scholars began documenting the problem as early as the 1960s. As this and previous textbook reviews have concluded, our history textbooks have essentially “taken sides” in the intense political debate around unions—the anti-union side.

The impact of these textbook distortions has been amplified by our youth’s exposure to a media that is sometimes thoughtless and sometimes hostile in its reporting and its attitudes toward labor. This is especially troubling when membership in private sector unions is shrinking rapidly and the right of public sector unions to exist is hotly contested.

Or, as E.J. Dionne says in a Washington Post op-ed, “We may still celebrate Labor Day, but our culture has given up on honoring workers as the real creators of wealth and their honest toil—the phrase itself seems antique—as worthy of genuine respect.” It was not always so. Dionne goes on to quote from Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Today’s textbooks offer little to help students grasp either the argument being made here or the historical context for why Lincoln might have made it.

In this context, the report cites James W. Loewen’s 1996 study of U.S. high school history books in which he argues that, when schools fail to teach about the reality of economic forces and class structure, and the role of unions in our history, students enter college “with no understanding of the ways that opportunity is not equal in America and no notion that social structure … [influences] the ideas they hold and the lives they live…”

As much as it is a critique of current materials, the Shanker Institute report is also designed to act as a resource for teachers, students, and others as they strive to fill in the gaps left by the standard texts. The Institute has also requested a meeting with the publishers of the reviewed textbooks— hard-copy student editions from Harcourt/Holt, Houghton Mifflin/McDougal, McGraw Hill/Glencoe, and Pearson/Prentice Hall—in order to discuss the need for fair and balanced coverage of labor unions and how their publications might be strengthened.

Among the many specifics to be reviewed will be the labor movement’s success in strengthening democracy in the U.S. by supporting the aspirations, living standards, and political voice of working men and women. As they stand, the books grant little attention to the fact that unions helped bring millions of Americans—including minorities and women—into our political process and into the middle class. More specifically, the textbooks were found to:

  • implicitly (and, at times, explicitly) represent labor organizing and labor disputes as inherently violent;
  • virtually ignore the vital role of organized labor in advocating for broad social protections and reforms, such as the eight-hour work day, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the end of abusive child labor, occupational safety and health rules, and environmental protections;
  • ignore the important role that organized labor played in the civil rights movement (such as providing key organization and financial support to the 1963 March for Jobs and Justice, at which Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream Speech and playing a pivotal role in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
  • pay scant attention to unionism after the 1950s, thus ignoring the rise of public sector unionization, which brought generations of Americans into the middle class and gave new rights to public employees.

As Paul Cole, executive director of the American Labor Studies Center has said, “In order to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens today, our students need to understand the past sacrifice of working men and women, individually and through their unions, that gave us the middle class quality of life that most of us still enjoy.”

You can download the report (PDF) here.

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