Rockwell Kent, Save This Right Hand, 1949
May is Labor History Month. Signed into law as AB 2269 (Swanson) in 2012 by Governor Brown, its purpose is to encourage schools “to commemorate this month with appropriate educational exercises that make pupils aware of the role the labor movement has played in shaping California and the United States.”
What role? Most of the middle class arrived in that economic neighborhood when working people got together, formed unions, and wrested a fair share of what they produced from their employers. In other words, it was by acting like a working class that most of our families became middle class during the last century.
One example is the New Deal, created by a president conscious of the enormous upsurge in unionization and worker activism in the 1930s, consisting of laws such as the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security Act, Unemployment Insurance Act, and Fair Labor Standards Act. While most people think of these as Roosevelt’s legacy, he didn’t do this alone. It took a massive surge of unionization, with workers engaged in strikes, demonstrations, factory seizures, and political action, pushing up from below, before those in power heard their message and created the New Deal.
Peter Stackpole, Building of the Bay Bridge, ca. 1933
So you might think these historic advances receive the attention they deserve in history books and social studies classes in our schools. But of course they don’t. The title of a 2010 study by scholars working with the Albert Shanker Institute, “American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s story is distorted in high school history textbooks,” describes part of the problem. The other part is simply exclusion of unions from the story of American society, in the corporate controlled textbook publishing industry and mass commercial media alike.
With union density sinking below 7 per cent in the private sector, it shouldn’t be too far a stretch to see the erosion of actual union achievements as related to their erasure from the history books and public conversation. Economic inequality is growing: the highest share of national income since 1928—23%— is in the hands of the richest 1%, at the expense of the rest of us. The Koch brothers, the Waltons, Eli Broad, and their ilk, pick up what amounts (for them) to their pocket change, fallen between the cushions of their couches, and buy elections and politicians across the country to do their bidding. These politicians are bent on destroying unions and privatizing every corner of the public sector.
And just to complete the picture, while we used to have the ability to mount an ongoing counter-conversation, what we might call an “oral culture of unionism,” in our workplaces and neighborhoods, that ability has eroded too, along with union density.
All the more important to remember and celebrate the historic victories of the labor movement whatever ways we can. The California Labor Federation and California Federation of Teachers were co-sponsors of AB 2269, and are working with friends in the legislature and the labor movement to hold events, disseminate information and instructional materials, and carry out the spirit of the law.
There are a number of ways to bring the lessons of labor history to our students and to celebrate labor history week outside of school too. The rotunda in the state Capitol in Sacramento will feature a fine exhibit on California labor history produced by the Research Bureau of the state library. Students at Berkeley High School will participate in a Collective Bargaining Institute, in which they will form union and management teams and do mock negotiations to learn how to problem solve through collective bargaining in the workplace. A new updated edition of the award-winning pamphlet, Work, Money and Power: Unions in the 21st Century, is available to set the record straight on the continuing importance of unions (including a new translation in Chinese).
For a generation of young workers facing employment in big box stores, fast food restaurants, and temp agencies, outside the protections of unions, these lessons are essential if they are to know their rights and know that it’s possible to defend the historic gains of working people. Imagine the difference in outcome of struggles in states like Wisconsin and Michigan over worker rights if young people had had a solid education about the importance of unions in school before growing up and becoming workers and voters. Labor History Month offers an opportunity to give all students something precious: knowledge of where their rights came from, and how to preserve and extend them today.