Laboring Under Education

April 2004


In this week's Labor Week, the writer discusses how education limits our choices by limiting what we see as a viable solution to our problems.

Whenever I speak with teachers or students about the history of labor unions in the country, I get depressed.

Both the quantity and quality of education on the history of organized labor in the United States are abysmal. No other industrialized country in the world has such a poor record of educating their children on this important subject. The textbooks used in schools provide a very brief and biased view of the labor struggles. Take any general American history textbook intended for the average high school. In it, you may find as few as 5 short paragraphs referring to labor unions. Many of the books contain fewer than 100 words total about anything related to labor.

And if that isn't enough, these same textbooks, without actually coming out and saying so, give the general impression that:

The depressing part is that most people believe these things are true.

The questions that are never asked are the most important. Why do people unionize? What do people gain by acting together to fight for what they think is a just and right return for their labor? What did our recent ancestors achieve for us by struggling for collective representation?

Another thing that is never brought up is that corporations are top-down dictatorships. The boss is in charge. He or she may ask you what you think about something, but the decision is ultimately out of your hands. So is the lion's share of the profits. Unions, on the other hand, are democratic membership organizations. You vote for representatives and union officers. If you and your friends don't like the leadership, you can get together and change it.

This is a pretty black-and-white representation of business and unions. The reality is that there are many caring and responsible bosses who do try to give their employees real incentives and at least a modicum of control over their workplaces. And there are some unions that don't act very democratic (they remind you of the US Congress). But we don't understand things by making believe that we already know enough about them.

Our children are never told anything like the whole story, or the whole truth. For example: there was a famous British political figure who, while serving in a ministerial appointment, ordered the British army to fire into crowds of striking mine workers and their families. Over a hundred men, women, and children died, including 4 babies under 1 year of age. And who was that politician? Winston Churchill.

Today we're faced with awful labor problems in this country. We're losing skilled jobs faster than you can say, "Do you want fries with that?" Many of the best and brightest minds in the nation are being thrown away because we can't find suitable work for them that would tap their abilities and compensate them fairly. One would think that such a climate would be ripe for union activism, but union membership is actually falling.

It is a great shame that instead of seeing the obvious solution right at hand (organizing collectively to protect our jobs and our incomes) we're standing around complaining and doing nothing. Because our attitudes have been shaped to benefit the owner class in our country (the textbook publishing house owners) we are unprepared to act in our own defense. We're frightened. We're isolated. Individually we're already defeated and we know it.

We need to educate ourselves and our children to come together as brothers and sisters in a struggle we can win together. If we don't, we're just asking for worse and worse troubles, and we'll have only ourselves to blame.

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