- Connecticut Labor History in the Classroom
In May 2015, the Connecticut General Assembly passed Public Act No. 15–17, encouraging local school districts to teach the history of the American labor movement. This was the culmination of years of advocacy by teachers, union activists, and supportive legislators. Spearheaded by Steve Kass, a retired teacher, member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and vice-president of the Greater New Haven Labor History Association (GNHLHA), this effort followed naturally from GNHLHA activities on the local level to document union history. As Kass testified before the General Assembly Education Committee, “The purpose of this legislation is to get labor’s untold story told,” citing a recent national poll finding that 54 percent of adults know “little” or “not much” about unions in the United States. Also, for the past several years, AFT Connecticut Secretary-Treasurer Ed Leavy testified in support of similar legislation at the state capitol. “Life as we know it today would be impossible without the contribution of organized labor,” Leavy told the legislature’s Education Committee in February 2015. “The men and women who struggled against deplorable working conditions, bias, and abuse deserved the right to be remembered,” he said.
The key to this success was persistence in submitting the legislation each year and building allies over the years. “It took five legislative sessions, five years starting in 2010 and ending in June 2015,” noted Kass. The final version of the legislation needed to satisfy Republican legislators who wanted a “balanced perspective,” so the title of the bill was amended to “An Act Concerning a Labor and Free Market Capitalism Curriculum.” The added language called for “the history and economics of free market capitalism and entrepreneurialism, and the role of labor and capitalism in the development of the American and world economies.” This was an easy concession for labor historians, as recent scholarship has emphasized that the history of labor cannot be told without attention to the history of capitalism. This legislation added this subject to the list of other recommended topics, including the Holocaust and genocide education, the Irish Great Famine, African American history, Puerto Rican history, and Native American history. [End Page 7]
This act is not binding on school districts, but it does require the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) to provide teaching materials on these topics. Kass assembled a committee of labor historians and teachers to produce the materials. I wrote a short summary of the history of the Connecticut working class and the labor movement, and other committee members provided labor history materials for the CSDE. Steve Thornton, retired union organizer and compiler of Hartford local history through his website “The Shoeleather History Project,” delivered other Connecticut materials, while Professor Troy Rondinone of Southern Connecticut State University provided input. Stephen Armstrong, Social Studies Consultant for CSDE, prepared these materials for posting on the CSDE website. Together, the three presented teacher workshops on the topic at the Spring 2018 Connecticut Council on Social Studies conference. It is an ongoing project to inform teachers about labor history topics and suggest ways to embed those topics in the standard US history survey classes they teach.
A key goal of the CSDE Social Studies curriculum is to use Connecticut examples of national history to allow students to appreciate where they live. Crucial to this effort is the ongoing work of historians to gather materials on local events. GNHLHA has been a local pioneer in this endeavor, aided in the beginning by Yale University’s David Montgomery and his crew of graduate students. It created and maintained a local archive of labor records curated by Joan Cavanagh, carried out oral-history projects, and mounted traveling exhibitions on New Haven garment workers and on the Winchester Repeating Arms Company factory. The Winchester exhibit is an excellent example of public history, telling the story of one employer and one factory and its interaction with the African American Newhallville neighborhood in the mid-twentieth century. See the Greater New Haven History Association’s website.
LAWCHA itself is aiding these efforts on the national level, with its committee Teaching Labor’s Story, chaired by Professor Emerita Nikki Mandell, University...