The Washington Post

The sad thing about Labor Day

Labor Day is traditionally marked with parades and other celebrations, a time for Americans to take a break from their jobs and honor the historic role that the labor movement played in the creation of the middle class, the rise of living standards and the strength of the country.  There’s nothing sad about that, for sure, but there is about this:

Many schools around the country don’t bother teaching the history and importance of the labor movement, and textbooks that do address the subject are often wrong. Ask some kids you know to tell you three things about the labor movement — or even to explain what a union is — and it is likely they can’t answer it.

Meanwhile, American teachers and their collective bargaining rights have come under assault by school reformers and policy makers, some of whom are motivated by their disdain for unions, and have experienced a deterioration in their working conditions.

Labor Day was first celebrated in this country in the 1880s — at a time when people commonly worked 12-hour days. The first Labor Day rally, in 1882, was in support of an eight-hour workday. Kids don’t learn much about how young people used to be forced into back-breaking jobs day and night in mines, textiles, glass factories, canneries and other places where children don’t belong. Labor activists eventually ended child labor — and won better working conditions for adult workers, including the eight-hour work day.

But 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,” showed that textbooks are often wrong when they write about the labor movement, a problem that goes back decades. (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’s in the textbooks.)

Major textbooks, among other things, often represent labor organizing as inherently violence, and virtually ignore the role organized labor played in winning broad social protections such as child labor laws, Social Security and Medicare.

Scholars say this a result of the unfavorable view the business community and some politicians hold towards unions, an attitude that appears in textbooks that are approved by states in processes that are very political.

Labor Day once marked the end of summer and the return to school for millions of American children and adults, but now many districts start the new school year well before Labor Day. The calendar change was a result in many places of a desire by administrators to ensure that students had more class time before high-stakes standardized tests were given later in the year.

That’s pretty sad too.



Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · August 31, 2013

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