Making a Place for Labor History

by Michael Schwalbe

Michael Schwalbe is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He recently had a piece published in the print edition of the News & Observer about the importance of recognizing labor’s contributions to our society, contributions many Americans may take for granted. We have reprinted his piece here with permission:

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.

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