Despite the importance of unions in our lives, our schools pay only slight attention to their importance - or even to their
Little is done in the classroom to overcome the negative view of organized labor held by many Americans, little done to
explain the true nature of organized labor.
There have been many attempts to remedy that situation, none more promising than the steps taken recently in Wisconsin
with enactment of a law that makes the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining part of the state's model standards
for social studies classes in the state's public schools.
The law does not mandate the teaching of labor history and collective bargaining, as its sponsors had wanted. But it amounts
to just about the same thing, by requiring the state superintendent of public instruction to make the subjects part of the
state's educational standards and to provide schools and teachers assistance in teaching labor subjects.
The Wisconsin Labor History Society, the state AFL-CIO and other labor and educational groups worked a dozen years to
finally win enactment of the law, the first such state law anywhere. But the History Society fully expects other states to
follow Wisconsin's example.
The importance of including labor history in the classroom was underscored effectively in the latest issue of the American
Federation of Teachers journal, American Educator.
"With the key protections for workers that unions have gained under attack," said a journal article, "there
is a greater need for the next generation to understand the real role of working men and women in building the nation and
making it a better place."
James Green, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, explains that, in studying labor, students learn important
lessons - above all "the contributions that generations of union activists have made to building a nation and democratizing
and humanizing its often brutal workplaces."
Fred Glass, communications director of the California Federation of Teachers, provides an ideal primer for students studying
labor. His summary is an excellent guide to what they should know about labor - a guide to what we should all know.
"Some people," said Glass, "interpret the decline of organized labor as if unions belong to the past, and
have no role to play in the global economy of the 21st century. They point to the numbers and say that workers are choosing
not to join unions anymore.
"The real picture is more complex and contradicts this view. Most workers would prefer to belong to unions if they
could. But many are being prevented from joining, rather than choosing not to join."
Unions, Glass concludes, "remain the best guarantee of economic protection and political advocacy for workers. But
as unions shrink, fewer people know what unions are, and do. And fewer remember what unions have to do with the prosperity
of working people."
That's what our schools should be teaching, and presumably what they'll be teaching in Wisconsin shortly, thanks to the
new law there. If we're fortunate, more states will soon follow suit.
Copyright @ 2009 Dick Meister