Social Studies

Wisconsin Schools Have Some New Labor History to Teach

By Erik W. Robelen — April 27, 2011 1 min read
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If you want a quick reminder of how quickly times have changed in Wisconsin, you need only go back to December 2009. That’s when outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed legislation calling on public school districts to teach the history of organized labor and collective bargaining in social studies classes.

Suffice to say that the state’s history on this subject has taken a new turn, since Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation recently that substantially curbs collective bargaining rights of teachers and many other public employees. (That measure, however is facing a lawsuit that has blocked implementation for the time being.)

I came across the measure on teaching labor history this week, as I was reporting on another story. (Last week, meanwhile, I wrote about legislation approved by the California Senate that would require public schools to incorporate the history and contributions of homosexuals into social studies classes.)

The 2009 legislation in Wisconsin was hailed as a victory for the labor movement. (The 2010 elections brought a political sea change to the state, with not only a new Republican governor, but also new GOP majorities in the state legislature.)

“Up until now, the key role that America’s labor unions played in building our country was the greatest story never told in history textbooks,” Phil Neuenfeldt, secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said in a press release after the measure was signed. “This law corrects that glaring omission. Wisconsin youth will learn how generations before them organized unions to improve working conditions and fight for the common good.”

In fact, according to the state union, this was the first such legislation to be enacted in the country. I have come across similar efforts elsewhere, however, including a bill introduced last year in Vermont and an effort under way to build support for mandating labor-history instruction in Connecticut schools.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.