Wisconsin’s teachers required to teach kids labor union and collective bargaining history

Matthew Boyle Investigative Reporter
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Wisconsin’s teachers are required to teach children about the history of the labor union movement and collective bargaining in the United States, per a law former Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle signed in December 2009. Wisconsin’s Assembly Bill (AB) 172 requires the state’s teachers to incorporate “the history of organized labor in America and the collective bargaining process” into their lesson plans.

Describing the new law, AB 172, Wisconsin’s official Department of Public Instruction (DPI) website says, “Wisconsin has long been a leader in labor rights. The Progressive Movement, which had its beginnings in our state, led to laws limiting child labor and safety in the workplace. Unions such as the AFL-CIO and Teamsters allow us to enjoy an eight-hour work week and vacation time. In fact, it has been argued by some historians that the history of the United States itself could be a history of labor.”

For help in lesson planning, the Wisconsin DPI provides links to the Wisconsin Labor History Society, the Wisconsin Historical Society Labor Collections and the Educational Communications Board Surf Report on Labor History, all pro-union websites.

The Wisconsin Labor History Society reported that the only reason the bill passed was because Democrats were in control of both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office for the first time in 12 years.

“In signing the bill, Gov. Doyle cited the importance of elections to achieving legislative goals. He recalled the lengthy effort to pass the bill, with it often passing one house of the legislature, and being stranded in the other,” the group states on their website. “He said for the first time in the last dozen years both houses of the Legislature, and the governor’s office, were in control of Democrats, nearly all of whom support legislation calling for teaching of labor history and collective bargaining in the schools.”

The Wisconsin Labor History Society recommends that, when teachers talk about labor unions and collective bargaining today, they use the following talking points:

1. Unions work closely in the community, are responsible for passage of key civil rights laws and other citizen protections.
2. Unions face greater employer challenges after President Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981.
3. Unions develop highly successful political efforts during last two decades of the 20th Century.
4. Organizing and aggressive political action became the top two priorities of the AFL-CIO with the election of John Sweeney as President in 1995.

Another lesson plan recommends that students play a trivia game about labor union history and design patches for unions their parents may be a part of.

The Wisconsin Labor History Society suggests teachers have students imagine that they’re a local firefighter in a union to try to understand why they should have union representation.

“Major elections always seem to elicit accusations and counterclaims about candidates’ response to political pressure and dollar contributions from special interest groups,” the Society recommends. “The special interest label has been applied to groups as diverse as environmentalists, pharmaceutical companies, and realtors. Unions, including those of firefighters, police officers, and teachers, are also often labeled as special interest groups. Imagine you are hired as a firefighter in your local community. All firefighters, including you, are being asked to contribute $2 a month to a political action committee. You aren’t sure you see the connection between firefighters, unions, and political action.”

Then, the Society suggests teachers have children research their local firefighters union to see, “why individuals with common interests, jobs, or training might join together to create political influence.”

If they adopt their own set of education standards, school districts can back out of the requirement to teach labor union history, newly elected Republican state Sen. Leah Vukmir, a Tea Party favorite, told The Daily Caller.

Vukmir said that when Democrats controlled the legislature, they wanted the statute to mandate labor history be taught, without exception. However, Vukmir explained, after a lobbying effort by Republicans, including herself, the language was changed from a “requirement” to teach labor history to it being a topic merely incorporated into state education standards that districts may or may not use to form the basis of their curriculum.

If school superintendents choose to develop their own education standard systems and opt out of the entire state system, they can avoid these labor history teaching statutes.