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Why Don’t People Know What Labor Day is Celebrating?

Why is Labor Day a national holiday? If you’re stumped, you’re not alone. In this post, Nathan Palmer argues that our awareness of the U.S. labor movement is connected to how textbooks and curriculum are created through a process of cultural production.

“What are we celebrating on Labor Day?” There is always a long silence after I ask my intro to sociology class this question. My students look to their left and right waiting for a classmate to generate the answer. “It’s a day off because we labor so hard, right?” I shake my head no. In eight years of teaching only one class got it right and I think they googled the answer on their information phones.

Labor Day celebrates the victories of the labor movement. Whether you know it or not, people fought and died protesting for the right to unionize, for weekends off, child labor laws, the 40 hour work week, and many other things that most workers today could not imagine living without.

So why are so few of us aware of the history of the labor movement? The answer to this question lies, at least partially, in James Loewen’s (1995) work Lies My Teacher Told Me.

The History of History Textbooks

Loewen analyzed the high school social studies and history textbooks to see what was and was not talked about it. Loewen found that half of the 18 American history textbooks he reviewed contained no index listing at all for the terms social class, social stratification, class structure, income distribution, inequality, or any conceivably related topic. Furthermore, very few of the books discussed labor union strikes and absolutely none discussed recent strikes and the strong government opposition to labor unions starting with the Reagan administration. Loewen (1995: 205) concluded that, “With such omissions, textbook authors construe labor history as something that happened long ago, like slavery, and that, like slavery, was corrected long ago.”

It’s easy to think that history is history (i.e. that history is the collection of facts about what happened before now), but that would be wrong. There is only so much time and historians and history educators have to make choices. What historians leave out and what they focus extra attention on affects how we come to understand the world. But this isn’t the real reason that we don’t talk about the labor movement in history textbooks.

Textbooks and curriculum are both battlegrounds. Parents, school boards, and politicians have fought hard to keep certain topics out of textbooks. In 1974 protests erupted when the school board in Kanawha County, West Virginia attempted to change the curriculum to include concepts like multiculturalism and egalitarianism. Parents boycotted the schools, schools were bombed with dynamite, and school buses were shot up.

In 2010 the Texas Board of Education created controversy when it created standards for social studies curriculum that put a “conservative stamp on history and economics textbooks, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light” We should note that this board was made up of elected officials and not experts in the field of curriculum, education, and pedagogy. Because Texas is the single largest purchaser of textbooks and most textbook companies want to ensure their books can be sold within the state , the standards this board sets become the unofficial standards for the country.

History as a Cultural Production

History is what ever we make it. Or to put it in sociological terms, history textbooks are cultural productions. That is, textbooks as a piece of culture are produced through a social process. Groups with different ways of thinking and different goals fight against one another to ensure that their interests are reflected in the textbooks. Put simply, history is negotiated.

We cannot understand the modern economy without understanding the labor movement. In the last year we’ve seen nation wide protests to raise the minimum wage, football players at a major university attempt to unionize, and watched as employers shift full time workers to part timers in response to the Affordable Care Cat (a.k.a. Obama Care). If your education didn’t include a thorough discussion of the U.S. labor movement, then I would encourage you to take part of this holiday to learn and remember the sacrifices labor activists made to ensure the rights and protections that we enjoy today.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What did you learn about the labor movement in your K-12 education?
  2. Do a quick google search for U.S. labor movement and find 2-3 facts or historical events from the movement that you were unaware of. List them with a brief description.
  3. Last year the Pew Research Center found that the public opinion of Unions was up, but membership was down. How might public opinion of unions and organized labor be shaped by the education system?
  4. In Arizona they have recently passed a law banning curriculum that focuses on Mexican-American studies. Read a brief excerpt of the law here. In your own words explain how this law affects curriculum and is an example of cultural production?