As you celebrate (or mourn!) the end of summer, keep in mind the forces that made the Labor Day holiday possible. The labor movement is a crucial factor in American history, and without it most people’s lives would have been substantially worse throughout the 20th century.
To get an idea of the scope of labor’s contribution to America, take a tour through our American History II Theme: The Labor Movement. In this theme, we’ve gathered together all the materials in American History II* that explain the evolution of protections and prerogatives for working people. See, for example, the case studies Haymarket Affair and Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, a portrait of Eugene Debs in action, or read an excerpt from John Spargo’s “The Bitter Cry of the Children.” By gathering these chronologically dispersed resources into a theme, students can get a better overview of the topic while still understanding its context in wider history.
And think about what a labor movement for the 21st century would look like. The nature of work, and all the institutions that surround it — from health insurance to 30 year mortgages — are changing yet again. According to this thoughtful piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, there are several distinct paths opening up:
I see three overlapping possibilities as formal employment opportunities decline. Some people displaced from the formal workforce will devote their freedom to simple leisure; some will seek to build productive communities outside the workplace; and others will fight, passionately and in many cases fruitlessly, to reclaim their productivity by piecing together jobs in an informal economy. These are futures of consumption, communal creativity, and contingency. In any combination, it is almost certain that the country would have to embrace a radical new role for government…The three potential futures of consumption, communal creativity, and contingency are not separate paths branching out from the present. They’re likely to intertwine and even influence one another.
What events would your students add to a 21st century timeline of the labor movement? What trends do they see, and how do they think their lives will be impacted? And what will they need to do to prepare?
*The theme and most of these materials are also available in a simplified form in Basic American History II.