Teaching labor history in a right-to-work state

By Katy Swalwell

When I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2011, I was leaving the state at a momentous time in its history. For months, thousands of people had been demonstrating at the state capitol in daily protest of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed Budget Repair Bill. The bill included a provision that greatly restricted collective bargaining for most public sector unions. As a member of the teaching assistants’ association at the university, I was one of the demonstrators, tugging my laptop into the capitol every morning to finish work on my dissertation, taking breaks to chant, march, dance, listen to speakers, discuss unfolding events with fellow protesters, and strategize about how to make our diverse voices heard. Most days, I stayed until late into the evening when hundreds of people arrived to sleep in the hallways.

Those weeks were extraordinary for many reasons, but for a former history teacher they were especially charged. Wisconsin has a deep tradition of progressive politics and organized labor—its workers have historically been among the most unionized in the country. The Bay View Massacre happened in Milwaukee, the Kohler strikes were in Sheboygan, groundbreaking labor historian John R. Commons worked at the University of Wisconsin, and “Fighting Bob” LaFollette was governor and also represented Wisconsin in the U.S. Congress. In fact, LaFollette’s bust watched over the protesters from its perch in the rotunda, and students from a high school bearing his name walked out in protest.

The air was thick with the history of those who came before us and the memories of what was possible when working people organized. Despite the passage of what became known as Act 10, I left Wisconsin euphoric—high on the energy of people coming together, heady with the history of collectivism coming alive, and fired up about people’s attempts to defend workers’ rights.

And then I took a job in Virginia.

History Without Labor

As one of the first states to adopt “right-to-work” legislation in 1947 and to ban collective bargaining for public employees in 1972, Virginia has a very different kind of labor history from Wisconsin. Even in the 1930s, union membership never grew above 15 percent of the workforce as many white men worried that organized labor’s efforts to empower women and African Americans would threaten the traditions of “genteel” Southern womanhood and Jim Crow. In the 1940s, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) launched “Operation Dixie” throughout the South in an effort to reduce discrimination and increase union membership. In response, Southern segregationists threw their weight behind the Taft-Hartley Act, which banned closed union shops in interstate commerce. Gov. William M. Tuck had already signed Virginia’s right-to-work bill, crippling unions’ efforts to organize and desegregate the state.

So when I recounted my experiences in Wisconsin to my new students, pre-service elementary school teachers at George Mason University, the response was a collective “Huh?” The majority of them were native-born northern Virginians (primarily white women, like myself, from suburban communities); most had never given unions much thought. They had heard about the protests in Madison and were curious, but the logic of unionization made little sense. In a state with a history of restricting organized labor, their knowledge of what workers have fought for, and their imaginations about what they could or should fight for, were extremely limited.

This narrow understanding of labor history is not a unique phenomenon: Few state social studies standards include many references to labor history. Textbooks pay scant attention to the labor movement beyond the Industrial Revolution and the New Deal policies of the 1930s. In a typical U.S. history survey course, a student could be forgiven for thinking that a monolithic bloc of workers fought for rights when they were severely exploited in the early 20th century, won some obviously righteous victories like the end of child labor, and then disappeared from the scene. Totally absent is closer attention to the range of workers’ struggles over time or a more complex analysis of the racism, sexism, and xenophobia within these struggles.

This is a serious problem. As James Green writes in his article “Why Teach Labor History?”:

Today, with union membership reduced, government standards for worker rights and safety under assault, and job security in jeopardy everywhere, young people entering the labor market are still vulnerable to abuse in the workplace. And yet, most are alarmingly unaware of the decades of struggle that previous generations engaged in—and that union members are still engaged in today—to extend human and civil rights to the workplace.

The message from mainstream media, corporate, and political leaders is clear: Rather than target the structural causes of our world’s rapidly intensifying inequality, blame oppression on those who shoulder the burden, find solidarity suspect, and hold up individual freedom of choice as the most important value. But knowledge of the strategies, victories, defeats, and controversies within the labor movement’s long history makes this neoliberal logic much less powerful. We will be far better equipped to tackle today’s enormous problems if we refresh our collective memory.

Our Labor Struggle Mixer

As a way to address these concerns and also model interactive pedagogical strategies for a social studies methods course, I designed a labor “mixer.” This lesson was ambitious, to be sure: review 30 events and figures from U.S. history to identify patterns and trends related to the labor movement. The hope was that my students would begin to develop more nuanced judgments about labor issues, contextualize their thinking within a deeper understanding of U.S. labor history, and critically reflect on their knee-jerk negative emotional reactions to unions. Although I was open to a diversity of thought about how and why workers should organize, I did think that my students’ belief that unions have no right or reason to exist was rooted in a fundamental ignorance of historical and contemporary fact. Ultimately, I wanted to shed light on some myths about labor and class struggle.

“What do you remember learning about unions or labor movements in school?” I asked them as part of the warm-up. Few of the students remembered anything—maybe a few sketchy memories of strikes at the onset of the Industrial Revolution. I asked if they knew any specific figures or events. “Cesar Chavez?” one student offered. “Do unions have something to do with the Mafia?” another wondered. “I think they’re related to communism,” suggested her neighbor. Only a handful had family members involved in unions or had ever been members themselves.

I handed each student a unique card containing a vignette describing a particular labor action from the 17th to the 21st centuries—events like the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, when Revolutionary War veterans stormed a Congress of the Confederation meeting in Philadelphia with demands to be paid (an event that led to the construction of Washington, D.C., as a federal district); the 1946 Hawai’i sugar strike, when Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, and Portuguese sugar plantation workers and their families fought to end the feudal plantation system; and the 1970 postal workers wildcat strike, when postal workers across the United States won living wage salaries and collective bargaining rights after the National Guard (called up by President Nixon as strikebreakers) could not manage the workload (see Resources).

Each card also included a brief character sketch of a fictional composite character or a real historical figure who participated in the event. For example, Bayard Rustin was an African American leader who helped organize the sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee; he was also a leader of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and an early gay rights activist. Lucy Gonzales Parsons, an anarchist of Native American, African American, and Mexican American descent, led the first May Day parade of 80,000 workers with her husband and children in Chicago; her husband, Albert, was later executed as one of the Haymarket martyrs. As a young girl, Harriet Hanson Robinson led a “turn out” at a textile mill in 19th-century Lowell, Massachusetts; she later became a poet and activist for women’s rights.

“I Can’t Believe We Never Learned This”

After giving students a few minutes to read their card, I handed out a graphic organizer with several prompts (e.g., “find someone fighting for the same demands as you,” “find someone using different tactics from you”). There was space to record notes from their conversations and document trends they noticed. I reminded them to stay in character, then encouraged them to leave their seats to greet each other and discuss why they were fighting, what their strategies were to win their demands, and whether or not they were successful. A naturally chatty bunch, the soon-to-be teachers quickly jumped into their historical characters—even suggesting that next year I give students their roles the week before so they would have time to research the issues. As they mingled, I heard several step out of character to say, “I can’t believe we’ve never learned about this before!” and “You have to hear about what happened to my person—it is so shocking!”

After about 20 minutes, I asked the class to assemble themselves in chronological order in a circle around the room. One by one, they gave a brief synopsis of their event, starting with the 1619 Jamestown Polish workers strike and ending with the recent 2011 Verizon strike. “Now that you’ve met each other and heard about all of these events, what stands out to you? What do you notice?”

“There was a lot of violence,” said one student.

“What’s an example?” I asked. Students talked about the Cripple Creek miners’ strike, Bloody Harlan, the Haymarket riot, the Thibodaux massacre, and the Homestead strike. “Are there any similarities between the strikes that got violent and the strikes that did not?” I asked.

“The people who were hurt in the most violent strikes are the people who were the worst off, just asking for basic things,” said one student. Another suggested that race might have something to do with it, so we reviewed the events they thought explicitly linked worker abuses with racism. As students explained why they had been so stirred by reading about these events, they expressed sympathy for the workers’ plights and struggles for rights.

“What else?” I pressed.

“It’s a lot of different people in a lot of different places—women, immigrants, even kids.”

“And a lot of different time periods.”

“I didn’t even know this one—the Immokalee Coalition’s Taco Bell boycott—was happening, and it wasn’t that long ago.”

“OK, let’s tease apart these different themes,” I said, leaving the circle to take notes on the board.

Ideally, we would have spent more time on this part of the lesson. We barely scratched the surface of what could be discussed: the prevalence of immigrants in labor struggles; the multi-ethnic coalitions that formed in response to abuse; the impact of racism and sexism by bosses and inside unions and movements; the shifting allegiance of government to workers or owners in particular political circumstances; the use of violence in reaction to workers’ most basic demands; the outcome of workers using violent tactics themselves; the immediate victories that sometimes led to bigger setbacks, and the immediate losses that sometimes led to bigger victories; the differences between white-collar demands and working-class struggles; the role of the media in shaping our ideas about union activity; and the presence of labor actions in every chapter of U.S. history and every region of the country.

“Anything else?” I prompted.

“Some of the workers’ reasons don’t seem as good as others.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. Several students had less sympathy for some of the actions—the air traffic controllers’ strike, the NFL lockout, and the Writers Guild strike, for example. “Why do these events seem less justified?”

“They already have it pretty good,” said one student.

“Yeah, they really didn’t need to go on strike,” said her neighbor.

“OK,” I said. “Let’s think about what justifies going on strike. What would it take to get you to go on strike?”

Immediately, one of the most responsible students in class spoke up: “I would never do that—I am a good worker.”

“Let’s dive into that,” I responded. “How is the goodness of a worker related to their obedience to employers? Do you have to be loyal to your boss be a good worker?”

“Yes—unless they’re doing something really bad.”

“If people want more or something better, they just need to work harder. We don’t need unions anymore.”

“Why do you say that? Let’s look at the evidence,” I suggested.

As the discussion heated up, one student interjected, “I was part of a union before I came back to school.” Her peers turned to listen. “I got worker’s comp when I was injured and that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, so I was really grateful.” She quickly added, “But, sure, there were things that were annoying and people who shouldn’t have been protected, so I guess I don’t know.”

I referred students back to the historical and contemporary examples as we wrestled with more questions: To whom and to what do workers owe their loyalties? Whose interests are served when “good workers” are reliable regardless of their circumstances? What strategies are justifiable (or most effective) when workers demand changes in working conditions or compensation? What other kinds of demands can workers make? When is it justifiable for workers to go on strike?

These are important questions for everyone, but are particularly thorny for public school teachers who try to organize (See Swalwell, Resources). As workers whose rights are under attack, what should they fight for and how should they fight for it? To explore this question, we paid special attention to the Wisconsin teachers’ coordinated absences during the protests of 2011.

“I just couldn’t do it,” one student remarked. “It hurts the kids.”

“But how else will people pay attention to your concerns?” another asked.

“They’re not very important concerns.”

“Really? It sounds like collective bargaining is pretty important, so maybe going on strike isn’t the best thing, but it seems like a big deal,” another chimed in.

“This is great,” I said as class ended. “This discussion is similar to the actual debates that teachers in the union had at that time. None of these questions is easy, but they are important. I hope that you make sure you keep asking them and trying to answer them with information—not just emotion.”

Just a Beginning . . .

In a right-to-work state like Virginia, it was unsurprising to hear students claim that “unions protect lazy workers,” “unions are greedy,” and “unions are bankrupting companies and states”—even as they expressed disgust and anger at how their historical characters had been treated. In one lesson, I could hardly expect attitudes based on decades of misinformation to be transformed.

The mixer did seem, however, to open up important space for my students to tackle tough topics, to examine preconceived notions about unions, and to reflect on their future relationship to organized labor as public sector employees. At the very least, it exposed my students to some basic facts of U.S. labor history and some of the complexities of organized workers’ struggles.

The labor movement has a long, fascinating, complex history. It offers opportunities to talk about discrimination related to gender, race, ethnicity, and immigration—both as a fight within and on behalf of unions. And it raises difficult questions about the relationship between government and corporations, as well as how social movements achieve their goals. Whatever students end up thinking about unions in general or the specifics of particular labor actions, everyone needs a deeper understanding of labor history. In fact, it is essential to a deep democracy to illuminate those disagreements and debates, and to provide space in a classroom to engage them.

As we started to rearrange the desks at the end of class, one of the students asked, “Can we keep our cards or do you need them back?”

“Go ahead and keep them.”

“Good. I want to read more about my strike.”


  1. Labor mixer materials
  2. Green, James. 2008Ð09. “Why Teach Labor History?” American Educator. Winter.
  3. Kahlenberg, Richard, and Moshe Z. Marvit. 2012. “The Ugly Racial History of ‘Right to Work,'” Dissent Magazine. Dec. 20. Available at
  4. Swalwell, Katy. 2014.”Teachers’ Unions Are Not Bad for Kids,” Gorski, Paul, and Kristien Zenkov, eds. The Big Lies of School Reform: Finding Better Solutions for the Future of Public Education. Routledge.

Katy M. Swalwell (Contact Me) is an assistant professor of education at Iowa State University. Her research focuses on social studies and social justice education with a focus on social class.