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Making a Place for Labor History

Michael Schwalbe

When teaching about social movements in America, I ask my students how many of them had to take a U.S. labor history course in high school. For the last twenty-five years the answer has been the same. Not a one.

I ask the question to make a point about how we learn what's needed for social change to occur. If all we know about social change comes from celebrating the lives of Susan B. Anthony, Rosa Parks, or Martin Luther King Jr., we may think that change results mainly from individual moral heroism.

The study of labor history teaches a different lesson: change occurs through organized, persistent, collective action by ordinary people. It's not surprising that those with the biggest stake in preserving the status quo don't want that lesson taught.

But times might be changing. After twelve years of legislative efforts, the state of Wisconsin recently passed the Labor History in the Schools Bill, the first such law in the country. The new law makes labor history part of the state's standard social studies curriculum.

The purpose of the bill is to ensure that students learn about the roles played by workers, labor unions, and collective bargaining in the history of America. Every state ought to enact a version of this law. Students everywhere need to know their labor history.

Pro-union bumper stickers remind us that unions are the people who brought us the weekend. The rest of the story would include other benefits won by organized labor: pensions, workers' compensation, health plans, vacations, the eight-hour day, overtime pay, and many safety laws.

To take these benefits for granted is not simply a failure to appreciate how unions have helped us all. It is a failure to understand U.S. history. It is akin to taking for granted our independence from the British, with no knowledge of the Revolutionary War.

Promoting the study of labor history is not, in other words, a matter of being for or against unions. It's a matter of being for education. The present, as the saying goes, is incomprehensible without an understanding of the past.

For example, my students at North Carolina State University are often surprised to learn that ours is the least unionized state in the nation; that North Carolina is one of only two states that outlaw public sector collective bargaining; and that economic inequality is greater today than at any time since the Great Depression. They want to know how things got this way.

A good labor history course would answer this question.

Students would learn how southern textile workers in the late 1920s and early 1930s organized to resist exploitation by mill owners, and how mill owners, in collusion with police and politicians, used violence to quash strikes.

One legacy of this violence is a fear of unions, a fear that partly accounts for the low unionization rate in North Carolina. A study of labor history would reveal that violence associated with union organizing originated not with workers but with bosses afraid of losing power and profits.

Students would also learn how North Carolina's General Statute 95-98, which prohibits collective bargaining by public employees, grew out of 1950s anti-communist hysteria and fear that alliances between black and white workers would challenge the dominance of North Carolina's ruling white oligarchy.

Every state has its equivalent labor history stories that need to be told. Students should learn both the local stories and how these stories connect to national labor movements and international labor struggles. "Globalization" is a trendy topic these days among professional educators. But any teaching about globalization that fails to connect local, national, and international struggles for economic justice by working people is seriously incomplete.

To understand rising inequality in the United States, students would need to look at changes in union strength. Historically, strong unions have put a brake on inequality. Dramatic increases in inequality in the last thirty years are attributable largely to the success of big business in weakening unions.

Of course, labor history is not only about unions and protest. It's also about the history of work and changes in the economy. And so students would also learn how labor has changed because of changes in technology, corporate deregulation, and international trade policies.

Passing more laws like Wisconsin's won't be easy. I don't expect it to happen any time soon in North Carolina. But nor did I expect to see tobacco-rich North Carolina ban smoking in bars and restaurants, as it did earlier this year. All it takes for this kind of thing to happen, against the odds, is a critical mass of people who have learned the lessons of labor history.


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Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe is professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. His most recent book is "Making a Difference: Using Sociology to Create a Better World" (Oxford, 2020).

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