This being Labor Day, it seems like a good time to look at the way the history of the labor movement is taught in U.S. schools. Unfortunately, it isn’t — at least, not much, and when it is, it is too often inaccurately portrayed.

Members of the Communications Workers of America demonstrate. (Joseph Kaczmarek/AP)

Why? Scholars say that the answer is largely because unions are unfavorably viewed by the business community as well as by some politicians — and that this has spilled over into the treatment of the subject in textbooks because of the political way that textbook content is approved in the states.

So how distorted are the textbooks?

A 2011 report by the nonprofit Albert Shanker Institute titled “American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story is Distorted in High School History Textbooks,” says the answer is “a lot,” and that the problem goes back at least to the 1930s.

(Yes, the institute is endowed by the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union, and named after a famous labor leader. But that doesn’t change what is or isn’t in textbooks.)

The report details four high school textbooks published by leading publishers — Harcourt/Holt, Houghton Mifflin/McDougal, McGraw-Hill/Glencoe, and Pearson/Prentice Hall — and used by a significant percentage of schools.

The textbooks, it finds:

* often implicitly (and, at times, explicitly) represent labor organizing and labor disputes as inherently violent;

* virtually ignore the vital role of organized labor in winning broad social protections, such as child labor laws, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency;

*ignore the important role that organized labor played in the civil rights movement; and

* pay scant attention to unionism after the 1950s,thus completely ignoring the rise of public sector unionization, which brought generations of Americans into the middle class and gave new rights to public employees.

The books are: “American Vision” and “United States History,” published in 2010, and “The Americans” and “American Anthem,” published in 2009.

Here are some examples (with footnotes removed), and you can find others in the report:

* “American Anthem,” for example, notes that, “In 1934, unions lost a number of major strikes, as labor-related violence increased.” One wonders if a textbook author would ever consider describing violence during strikes—which was most often initiated by employers who suffered few penalties—as “management-related violence.”

* “The Americans” describes President Calvin Coolidge’s intervention in the Boston Police Strike of 1919: Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge called out the National Guard. … People praised Coolidge for saving Boston, if not the nation, from communism and anarchy.

* “The Americans”: In a paragraph headed, “Truman Faces Strikes” (the title alone makes unions sound menacing), workers are labeled “discontented” — even though the passage acknowledges that they faced higher prices and lower wages. The passage continues: …Truman refused to let strikes cripple the nation. He threatened to draft the striking workers and to order them as soldiers to stay on the job. …. Before he could finish his speech, the unions gave in.

*The textbooks often describe strikes and labor disputes as harmful to the nation’s economic welfare — not as the actions of Americans who were standing up against a massively biased and unfair system in order to obtain justice, although this is how other American activists and causes — for example, the suffragists or the Progressives — are portrayed.

* “American Vision” describes workers in the 1894 Pullman Strike as having “tied up the railroads and threatened to paralyze the economy.” “United States History” (in a section titled, “The Triumph of Industry”) describes the steelworkers’ and miners’ strikes of the 1890s as “an epidemic,” and sums up labor activism and mobilization from the 1870s forward in this way:

Striking workers, responding to wage cuts, caused massive property destruction in several cities. State militias were called in to protect strikebreakers … Finally, the federal government sent in troops to restore order.

Note the value judgments implied in the language used here. This is language that implicitly blames workers for acting, against the overwhelming forces stacked against them, to defend their democratic and economic rights.

* “The Americans” contains a description of the Haymarket Affair that fails to mention that the 3,000 workers gathered in Chicago’s Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, were there to support the movement for an eight-hour day—both through supporting a national strike and by protesting police brutality in a strike at the McCormick Harvester Plant the day before that, as the description does note, led to the death of two people and the wounding of several others. Failing to mention the Haymarket protest’s connection with the eight-hour movement leaves out a huge piece of the story, and makes the Haymarket Affair seems to be just one more example of union-led, violent strikes. Even more egregious, the descriptions in “The Americans” and the other textbooks fail to mention that the conviction of the eight labor and reform leaders accused in the Haymarket bombings (and the execution of four of the men) was seen around the world as a miscarriage of justice. Although “American Vision” does concede that the evidence against the Haymarket defendants “was weak,” the description in “The Americans” does not mention that no credible evidence was presented at their trial linking the Haymarket defendants to the bombing.


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Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.