The start of the school year in much of the country usually coincides with Labor Day, but a new study finds that many students are largely unaware of the role of the labor movement in U.S. history.
The Albert Shanker Institute, in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center, conducted a survey of four major textbooks that dominate the U.S. history text market. The report, “American Labor In U.S. History: How Labor’s Story Is Distorted In High School Textbooks,” found that the major texts downplay and ignore significant advances and accomplishments by the labor movement. Instead of focusing on the importance of union activism in passing social protections like the eight-hour workday and occupational safety standards, the books portrayed labor in a more negative light. When labor was mentioned, the books emphasized strikes and associated violence without exploring the situations and working conditions that led to the protests.
According to AFT and Albert Shanker Institute President Randi Weingarten,
“This report explains why so few Americans know much about labor’s history and contributions. It paints a devastating picture of distortion and omission. Too often, labor’s role in U.S. history is misrepresented, downplayed, or ignored. The result is that most American students have little sense of how the labor movement changed the lives of Americans for the better. A vital piece of U.S. history is disappearing before our eyes. … The central argument of this report is not simply to plead for equal treatment for labor in history textbooks. It is that American history itself is incomplete and inaccurate without labor history. Textbooks that leave out or slant labor history simply aren’t fully reflecting our nation’s history.”
These findings exacerbate the negative depictions of unions by many mainstream media outlets. A poll conducted by Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup last month found that 68 percent of people hear more bad stories than good stories about teachers, who are mostly unionized, in the media. Additionally, 47 percent believe the unionization of teachers has hurt the quality of a public education, compared to only 26 percent who say it has helped.
The sponsors of the Shanker study hope their findings will encourage textbook publishers to provide a more accurate portrayal of labor’s contributions. They will send letters requesting meetings with the four publishers in question — Harcourt/Holt, Houghton Mifflin/McDougal, McGraw Hill/Glencoe, and Pearson/Prentice Hall — so that students will be exposed to straightforward facts about labor and create better-informed opinions based on history, instead of relying on biased reports in the media and elsewhere.
Although the study examined textbooks from 2009-10, the authors said that such anti-labor bias in books dates back to at least the New Deal era and has been documented by scholars since the 1960s. But as the national dialogue about unions grows even more tense, there is a greater need for more accurate information and appreciation of the labor movement.