Labor Issues
March 07, 2016

Interest in labor history is rewarded, thanks to Long Island teacher

Author: Tess Thapalia
Source: NYSUT Communications
james graber
Caption: FILE PHOTO: James Graber addresses colleagues at NYSUT's Local Action Project in 2014. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

You can be sure that Long Island teacher James Graber was proud when the award for “Outstanding Entry on Labor History” was presented at the Long Island Regional contest for National History Day, held at Hofstra University on Sunday, March 6. The award, sponsored by NYSUT, was the brainchild of Graber, a 17-year NYSUT member.

Graber, the president of the Associated Teachers of Huntington, got the idea to sponsor the award after talking with fellow teacher Joseph Leavy, who works with the local chapter of the National History Association. Their discussion about the NHA and the then-upcoming National History Day event, combined with Graber’s own belief in the importance of recognizing the history of unions, inspired Graber to reach out to Peter Verdon, the Regional Staff Director for the Suffolk regional office, about sponsoring an award to acknowledge scholarship on labor unions.

“One of the things I really love about this award is the notion of raising awareness to younger people about the importance of unions and the work that they do. Union goals of equality, social justice, workplace safety, all these goals still ring true today,” Graber said. “This is an important avenue to open the eyes of young scholars to the necessity of the union fight.”

Graber made sure to mention the contributions of Lauren Desiderio, the head of the Huntington chapter of the National History Association. “She’s been instrumental- she’s really the spearhead of the whole thing,” he said about his fellow teacher and NYSUT member. Desiderio is a member of the Long Island History Day Board.

Graber, who teaches Advanced Placement microeconomics and U.S. history, said that he believes it’s important to emphasize the contributions of unions, “because labor history is such an integral part of American history and world history. This award is a chance to recognize the contributions that it’s made.”

“My first introduction to the labor movement was locally centered to Huntington,” Graber said. “But attending my first NYSUT Representative Assembly, seeing the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of members all gathered for one common goal, was amazing. That year there was a [labor] march in Manhattan, there was so much happening- it was eye-opening to the importance of unions today.”

Graber hopes that this award will encourage students to explore the rich history of labor movements in America. “Students don’t always realize the impact that unions have had on the way things are today,” he said. “The changes that unions effected happened so long ago that people think that this is the way that workplaces have always been, and that’s just not the case.”

“What was taking place in the 1880s is still taking place in 2016,” Graber said. “It’s important to maintain that voice for workers, and to teach the next generation to continue the fight.”