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Lesson Plans

Lesson plan: Role of labor in U.S. history and today

April 11, 2022

Christian Smalls, president of the Amazon Labor Union. Credit: Krystal, Kyle & Friends

Overview

At a time of growing economic inequality and extravagant wealth akin to the Gilded Age, is the U.S. also entering a new era of support for workers’ rights? After 40 years of declining union membership, Amazon workers on Staten Island, New York, voted in early April to become the first Amazon warehouse to unionize in the country. Organizers are demanding better wages, safer working conditions and longer breaks. The multibillion-dollar online retail giant maintains they keep workers safe and launched a union-busting campaign to put an end to unionization efforts.

In this lesson, students will examine some of the factors contributing to today’s labor organizing and the challenges and successes thus far. It will also allow students to compare today’s movements with earlier labor movements from 1875 to 1900, better known as the Gilded Age.

Objectives

Students will:

  1. Describe current examples of organized labor, including their demands, setbacks and successes.
  2. Utilize historical documents to analyze examples of organized labor in the Gilded Age, including their demands, setbacks and successes.
  3. Compare the labor movements of the Gilded Age to those in the U.S. today.

Subjects

U.S. history, social studies, civics, economics

Estimated Time

50-80 minutes, depending on activities you choose

Full Lesson

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For a Google doc version of this lesson, click here. Note: You will need to make a copy of the Google doc to edit it.

Introduction

The pandemic has seen a number of changes in the workplace from remote working to the so-called Great Resignation to a labor shortage in many essential services. As a result, organized labor in the U.S. has gained more influence in negotiating wages and benefits than it has for the last few decades. Susan J. Schurman, who teaches labor studies at Rutgers University, told the Associated Press:

“For years, companies in most unionized industries have commanded an upper hand. During the slow, grinding economic recovery that followed the 2008-2009 Great Recession, they negotiated concessions and held down pay raises. Rising health care costs further diluted wages. By contrast, this recovery has produced an unexpected labor shortage and given many workers more bargaining power than they’ve had since the 1980s, when the Reagan administration set a tone of hostility toward unions, and manufacturers began moving many jobs overseas…”

Participants in this lesson will examine some of the factors contributing to today’s labor organizing and the challenges and successes thus far. They will also compare today’s movements with earlier labor movements from 1875 to 1900, better known as the Gilded Age.

Teacher tip: The main activity lesson is designed for students who have been introduced to the Gilded Age. If you would like students to learn more about the current developments in unionization efforts in the U.S., use the warm-up activity and the extensions.

Warm up activity

See, Think, Wonder: Read the following two quotes. Ask students: What did you notice? What did the quotes make you think? What questions do you have? Where would you go to learn more?

“This campaign should be the most talked about campaign in the country. … We’re talking about workers. Workers from the bottom who have nothing.” —Christian Smalls, president, Amazon Labor Union, Krystal, Kyle & Friends interview, March 20, 2022

“He’s not smart, or articulate, and to the extent that the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we’re trying to protect workers.” — David Zapolsky, Amazon’s general counsel discussing Christian Smalls in leaked meeting notes, VICE News, April 2020

Let students know that after Amazon fired him two years ago, Christian Smalls did indeed become the face of the union movement, as co-founder of the Amazon Labor Union:

If time allows, watch this PBS NewsHour video to learn about some of the working conditions Amazon employees in Bessemer, Alabama, have experienced and Amazon’s response. Union organizers in Bessemer recently lost an election to form a union. Ask students: Why do you think it’s so difficult to start a union? Why did these workers push for unionization? Why was Amazon management against the idea?

Main activity

  1. Distribute Student Handout. Note: You will need to make a copy of the Google doc to edit it or fill out the answers.
  2. As a class, read the article Labor shortage leaves union workers feeling more emboldened together and discuss questions provided. Explain to students that this period marks the first time in 30 or 40 years that the labor union movement is on the offensive in the U.S., making strides after decades of efforts to crush them. (15 minutes)
  3. Assign students or pairs one of the three deep dives. Have students read the historical documents and the current article on union organizing in order to complete the chart provided. (15 minutes)
  4. Organize students into mixed groups and allow them to share their findings. Completing the chart. (10 minutes)
  5. Have students develop an argument (one to two sentences) that addresses the prompt, “To what extent are the organization efforts today similar or different from those in the Gilded Age?” (10 min)
    • If time allows, push students to write an argumentative paragraph using two pieces of text evidence to support their claim.

Extensions

1. History of unions with a lens on race

Discuss different ways race has played a role in union development in U.S. history by considering the following excerpts:

Amazon faces biggest union push in its history (Associated Press, Feb. 2021):

“More than 70% of the population of Bessemer is Black. The retail union estimates that as many as 85% of the workers are Black, much higher than the 22% for overall warehouse workers nationwide, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data. Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, says the union’s success in Bessemer is partly due to the pandemic, with workers feeling betrayed by employers that didn’t do enough to protect them from the virus. And the Black Lives Matter movement, which has inspired people to demand to be treated with respect and dignity. Appelbaum says the union has heard from Amazon warehouse workers all over the country. “They want a voice in their workplace, too,” he says.”

African Americans and the American Labor Movement (National Archives article by James Gilbert Cassedy, 1997):

“The formation of American trade unions increased during the early Reconstruction period. Black and white workers shared a heightened interest in trade union organization, but because trade unions organized by white workers generally excluded blacks, black workers began to organize on their own. In December 1869, 214 delegates attended the Colored National Labor Union convention in Washington, D.C. …The assembly sent a petition to Congress requesting direct intervention in the alleviation of the “condition of the colored workers of the southern States” by subdividing the public lands of the South into forty-acre farms and providing low-interest loans to black farmers… Congress evidently showed little interest in either petition… The decline in the relative position of African Americans vis à vis organized labor can also be seen in the railroad industry. During the Great Strike of 1877, for instance, rallies and marches in St. Louis, Louisville, and other cities brought together white and black workers in support of the common rights of workingmen. By 1894 Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union in a strike against the Pullman Company, was unable to convince members of his union to accept black railroaders.

2. What support for unions has been like

Credit: Krystal, Kyle and Friends

Lawmakers: Watch this Krystal, Kyle & Friends segment featuring Christian Smalls discussing how politicians largely ignored Amazon workers’ efforts in Staten Island to form a union. Ask students: Why do you think politicians did not speak out in support of Smalls and his colleagues’ efforts to unionize prior to the vote? How did this lack of support affect their efforts? For the full episode, click here.

White House: President Joe Biden’s task force on unions released a report in February recommending the strengthening of labor unions. Following news of Staten Island’s victory, Biden said “Amazon, here we come” at a labor event to the applause of many. But the White House later walked back his remark, which Breaking Points covered here. Ask students: In addition to the task force, what has the Biden administration’s response been on the rise of union organizing? Why do you think the White House walked back Biden’s remarks?

News media: Christian Smalls discussed how the union vote in Staten Island did not receive the amount of coverage compared to Bessemer and had much less funding to help get the word out. Ask students: How much coverage has the news media given to the recent uptick in union organizing efforts? If you’re not sure, how could you find out? Watch this video to get started.

Additional resources

EXCLUSIVE: Christian Smalls REVEALS Amazon Fight Next Steps (April 2022 – Breaking Points)

Fired Starbucks employee says management retaliated against her for pushing union effort (AZCentral.com – April 2022)

A look into Amazon’s employee conditions as the company pushes back against unionization (March 2021 – PBS NewsHour)

Google workers form new labor union, a rarity in tech (Jan. 2021 – Associated Press/NewsHour)

Alaska Airlines cancels dozens of flights as pilots picket over stalled contract negotiations (April 2022 – Associated Press/NewsHour)

Luxury Apartment Doormen and Building Staff Brush Off Landlord Demands for Givebacks (April 2022 – The City)


Sarah Mofford has taught English and history at the high school level for nine years in California and Texas. She aims to make exploratory and investigative lessons that allow students to discover new information and practice skills to connect current events to literature and events of the past.

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