October 2011 Issue
September 27, 2011

Report: Labor's story missing from textbooks

Author: Clarisse Butler Banks
Source: NYSUT United
How Labor's Story is Distorted in High School History Textbooks – And What We Lose By It cover

A new report on how labor is treated in high school history textbooks reveals that most Americans never get the information they need to create informed opinions on questions about labor's role in American society.

American Labor and U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor's Story is Distorted in High School History Textbooks – And What We Lose By It, found that while textbooks tend to focus on strikes and strike violence, they fail to credit labor's role in bringing generations of Americans into the middle class. At other times, the textbooks simply ignore labor's contributions — including unions' activism in passing social reforms such as the eight-hour work day, and their strong support for the civil rights movement.

"This report explains why so few Americans know much about labor's history and contributions. It paints a devastating picture of distortion and omission," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "Too often, labor's role in U.S. history is misrepresented, downplayed or ignored. That means most American children have little sense of how the labor movement changed American life and their own lives."

The report is based on a survey, commissioned by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center, of the hard-copy student editions of high school U.S. history textbooks published by Harcourt/ Holt (2009), Houghton Mifflin/McDougal (2009), McGraw Hill/Glencoe (2010), and Pearson/Prentice Hall (2010).

The textbook review found that the problem of negative or incomplete coverage of the labor movement in school textbooks dates back at least to the New Deal era, and concludes that U.S. history texts have essentially taken sides in the intense political debate around unions — the anti-union side.

The central argument of this report is not simply to plead for equal treatment for labor in history textbooks, Weingarten said. "It is that American history itself is incomplete and inaccurate without labor history."

The report was written by Paul Cole, founder and executive director of the American Labor Studies Center; history teacher Lori Megivern, president of the Cortland United Teachers; and Jeff Hilgert, a Ph.D. candidate in industrial and labor relations at Cornell University.

Find the full report at www.ashankerinst.org.