New Report Finds High School Textbooks Ignore or Distort the Role of Labor Unions in American History

jilani_zaid_bioOn Monday, America celebrated Labor Day, which is set aside to honor American laborers and their unions. Yet a new report from the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) Albert Shanker Institute titled “American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story is Distorted in High School History Textbooks” finds that America’s high school students are not being properly taught about the contributions of organized labor to American history.

The Shanker Institute report surveyed four high school textbooks — The American Vision, American History, The Americans, and American Anthem — published by major publishers that make up a “significant” portion of the American textbook market and found serious deficiencies in the coverage of labor unions. Here are some highlights from the report:

– The Role Of Unions In Winning Broad Social Protections Is Overlooked: The textbooks surveyed failed to record the history of American unions using their political clout to win social protections for all Americans. This overlooked advocacy includes activism on behalf of the “Progressive Era and New Deal reforms, such as the Social Security Act of 1935, Medicare, Medicaid, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency.”

– The Role Of American Labor In Battling Human Rights Abuses Abroad Is Ignored: The report notes that the textbooks surveyed failed to mention the “the important role that the American labor movement played in support of the establishment of free and democratic trade unions in post-war Western Europe.” They also ignored the role that unions played in allying with the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa or “numerous other efforts to support free and democratic unions as a bulwark against totalitarian and authoritarian regimes.”

– Labor’s Role In Winning Civil Rights Is Ignored: One of the major omissions of these textbooks is overlooking the role that unions played in the civil rights movement. The contributions of labor leaders to these movements are ignored, and the labor advocacy conducted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is barely covered. There is no mention in any of the textbooks, for example, that AFL-CIO president George Meany paid $160,000 in 1963 for bail to release King and 2,000 other civil rights demonstrators from jail.

– Anti-Union Behavior By Employers Is Glossed Over: The report finds that the textbooks largely ignore the “history of aggressive and at times violent anti-union behavior by employers.” These abuses are “neither addressed as a significant legal problem nor is it analyzed as a serious denial of First Amendment rights.” For example, The Americans praises Andrew Carnegie’s and John D. Rockefeller’s business successes but fails to note their anti-union behavior.

– Major Strikes Are Misrepresented: Historic strikes are “treated as costly failures, as violent, as lacking public support and backfiring against unions.” The “role [of the employer] in provoking strikes through prolonged, unrelenting worker abuse, and employers’ attempts to suppress strikes, often through illegal and violent means, are glossed over.” For example, American Anthem praises Reagan’s firing of PATCO workers, calling it “decisive.”

The report concludes with a set of recommendations for text book publishers. Included among these is including sections on unionism past the 1960?s, which is very lightly covered, and presenting unionism as a basic right.

This blog originally appeared at Think Progress on September 7, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Zaid Jilani is a Senior Reporter/Blogger for at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Zaid grew up in Kennesaw, GA, and holds a B.A. in International Affairs with a minor in Arabic from the University of Georgia. Prior to joining ThinkProgress, Zaid interned for Just Foreign Policy and was a weekly columnist at The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s official student newspaper. He is a co-editor at the Georgia-based blog Georgia Liberal and a regular on RT America’s The Alyona Show and The Thom Hartmann Show. He is also an occassional contributor to the op-ed pages of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
Tracking image for JustAnswer widget
Scroll to Top

Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.