By Steve Kass
Greater New Haven Labor History Association Executive Board Member
“The history of the American labor movement needs to be taught in every school in this land….America is a living testimonial to what free men and women organized into free democratic trade unions can do to make a better life….we ought to be proud of it.”
Hubert H. Humphrey, Former Vice President
According to a poll by the independent Hart research, 54 percent of adults said they know just a little or don’t know much about unions. They said their chief sources of knowledge were personal experience (37 percent), people in unions (26 percent) and the media (25 percent). Significantly, learning in school was not even mentioned.
The implications of the research are clear. To a very large degree, Americans are uninformed or misinformed about union, the labor movement and the role that workers have played, and do play, in our nation’s economic, political and cultural life.
For these reasons the Greater New Haven Labor History Association (GNHLHA) is proposing legislation requiring the teaching of labor history in Connecticut public schools. The legislation specifically calls for “the teaching of organized labor, the collective bargaining process, and existing legal protections in the workplace in Connecticut public school classrooms.” The purpose of the legislation is to get labor’s untold story told.
This legislative proposal follows the lead of the Wisconsin labor history association that organized the first in the nation passing of historic legislation in 2009. Similar legislation is being presented in other states across the country.
Unfortunately, apathy and indifference are at the center of young people’s lack of understanding the role of unions and labor history. Students have simply been taught little or no labor history. Because of this fact, generations of workers don’t have a basic understanding about the historical role that unions played in helping to create the middle class. They don’t know that it was unions that helped give American society the weekend, minimum wages, health care benefits, social security, Medicare, 40-hour work week and unemployment insurance.
Most people don’t remember or know how important the labor movement was in pushing Depression-era politicians to pass legislation that systematizes the basic features of American work wage earners now take for granted.
In the face of such depressing news, the GNHLHA hopes to turn around young people’s knowledge of unions and labor history in Connecticut. Academic standards and curriculum resources such as textbooks have historically ignored or been deficient in their treatment of workers and the labor movement. Significantly, many teachers want to cover this history in their classrooms, but there are few written curriculum standards by local and state educational institutions to encourage the teaching of this material. An excellent website for labor curriculum is labor-studies.org/(American Labor Studies Center).
“Our sons and daughters deserve to know that the fruits of our labor were not handed down to us by those in power but rather won by the efforts of extraordinary people who sacrificed to produce a better life for all of us.”
Ken Germanson, president of the Wisconsin Labor History Society
After a successful introduction of the Teaching Labor History in the Connecticut Public Schools into the 2012 state legislative process, the GNHLHA is preparing to present the same bill again in next year’s longer session. Last year, testimony was present by ten unions statewide with support from the Connecticut AFL-CIO in a public hearing with the legislature’s education committee.
The emphasis next year will be on generating publicity for the legislation, organizing legislative support, introducing a pilot project for teaching labor history in the public schools, and training teachers in using curriculum resources.
If you are interested in serving on the GNHLHA legislative task force, contact SteveKass@sbcglobal.net.