Textbooks Ignore, Distort Union History

High school history books ignore how the rise of AFSCME and other public-sector unions have transformed the American labor movement.

Over the past 50 years, AFSCME and other public-sector unions have transformed the American labor movement. We’ve lifted millions of families into the middle class, especially women and workers of color. We’ve been a force behind some of the most significant social and economic movements of recent generations. We live many of our nation’s founding principles.

But if you read the American history books that most high school students open every day, you never would learn any of that. In fact, you would not learn much about labor unions at all.

What you did learn would lead you to believe that unions haven’t done much since the early 1900s; that we’ve relied on violence when we did accomplish something; and that unions play a minimal role (at best) in creating America’s middle class, increasing safety on the job, increasing leisure time, pushing for more equality for more workers, or achieving more security and dignity in retirement.

These are among the findings in a report from the Washington, D.C.-based Albert Shanker Institute. The report concludes that history books from the four largest high-school publishers misrepresent, downplay, and ignore most of labor unions’ contributions to society.

For example, the report says: “American labor was central to winning child labor protections, unemployment insurance, workers’ injury compensation, Social Security benefits, the minimum hourly wage, the eight-hour day and other limits on working hours, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Family and Medical Leave Act, Medicare, and Medicaid. Yet the textbooks are largely silent on labor’s role in these achievements.”

Instead, the report says, the textbooks often give the credit to other organizations, to elected officials who sign the advances into law – and sometimes even to corporate bosses themselves.

What about both sides?

Unions often are treated as an historical artifact – something that happened long ago and disappeared long ago. “The idea that they might be necessary for workers to have a voice in the workplace goes unstated,” the report says.

In a similar vein, the textbooks discuss all kinds of discrimination in American society, but do not discuss the discrimination American workers face if they try to organize a union or improve working conditions in other ways. The textbooks discuss human rights – but do not extend their discussion to violations of workers’ rights routinely committed by American businesses.

Further, the report says, by ignoring the growth of AFSCME, teachers unions, and other public-sector and white-collar unions, the textbooks “ignore how unionism has changed over time.”

While the textbooks downplay the role of unions in driving progress and achievement, they “tend to over-represent the role of conflict,” the report says. “Indeed, the books’ focus makes violence nearly synonymous with labor unions…. 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.”

In addition, the textbooks typically blame unions “for strikes, unrest, and violence – no matter how indefensible the behavior of businesses, militias, Pinkerton agents, and strikebreakers in literally attacking striking workers.” Further, the report says, “employers’ retaliatory responses to union organizing are presented as the natural pursuit of economic interests, not as clear violations of First Amendment rights, lawbreaking by employers, or acts of oppression.”

Adding to the story

The report also argues that textbooks: