Wisconsin set to teach labor history


Shouldn’t it be natural for public schools to put front and center labor history? After all, it’s the story of the working people who built the community. It’s the story of their struggle for dignity, rights and a decent standard of living by organizing labor unions, building a labor movement and creating a diverse working-class culture. In most parts of the country that story hasn’t been made an official part of the public education curriculum, though.


Wisconsin may become one of the first states in the country to change that, however. By a wide, bipartisan margin late last month, the Wisconsin State Senate passed a measure that would require public schools to teach labor history, including issues related to collective bargaining rights. The State Assembly passed a similar measure last April.

Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle has indicated his support for and is expected to sign the bill.

In a discussion of the issue, Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Dave Newby told LaborRadio this week that Wisconsin workers have played a large role in U.S. labor movement history going back to the 19th century.

“Wisconsin has been a leader in the worker’s campaign for an eight-hour day starting way back in the 1880’s, in establishing the public education system, the first worker’s compensation system in the country, one of the first Family and Medical Leave Acts back in the late 80s, been a leader in trying to get health care for all,” Newby said.

He added that history is too often told from the perspective of the words and deeds of great leaders, often men, ignoring the special contributions and diversity of working men and women and their communities in the making of this country. “Too often history is taught in terms of who are the great leaders. The real history below the surface is being created by working people,” he explained.

Newby cited the very existence of public schools as a victory achieved by the labor movement.

In a statement, state Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay, one of the bill’s authors agreed. “At a time when people are hurting, primarily as a result of a Wall Street dominated culture that promoted greed and get-rich-quick schemes over the value of hard work, it is important for our young people to learn about the important role that organized labor and working men and women have played in helping create the middle class,” he said.

Wisconsin Labor History Society President Steve Cupery, in hearings on the bill held over the summer, told Wisconsin legislators that learning labor history is a key ingredient for empowering working-class youth to build a strong future. “Knowledge about one’s rights to organize and the benefits of unions offers the promise of positive future change for the next generation,” Cupery reportedly said.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vocesdelafrontera/ / CC BY 2.0


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).