Labor Day might make us think of picnics, parades and the last vacation before school starts. Most of us may not stop to remember why we have a Labor Day and what it’s all about. Labor Day is a day set aside to honor the work that people perform to care for loved ones and keep our country functioning. We honor too those who have lost their lives on the job, in accidents, strikes, lock-outs or in the labor organizing process.
We can thank Labor unions such as the UAW (United Auto Workers), the farm workers, railroad and steel workers, miners, NEA, PATCO, Teamsters and those unions within the AFL-CIO for their action to preserve the dignity of labor, to facilitate healthy and safe work environments and to negotiate successfully for better working conditions. Without the sacrifice and struggle of organized labor, we would not enjoy:
a 40 hour work week (with paid overtime)
an 8 hour day (you would work 10 hours per day before seeing any overtime)
national health and safety standards within the work place (guards on machines, safety equipment, etc.)
child labor laws (thus keeping kids in school and out of dangerous work environments before they were even 12)
minimum wage levels
on site child care
job protection (so you couldn’t be fired for no reason)
health care benefits
Labor Day itself
This is only the tip of the iceberg of work that labor unions have accomplished. If you take a look at our nation’s history, it’s been unions first and foremost that have been there to get working people what they need to survive. So it’s only right and fair that as we enter a school year, we begin with a unit educating our children about the history of labor and the rights of workers. After all, they will be the workers of tomorrow. This is a perfect kick-off for the social studies unit. In high school, any history, economics, social studies, geography or culture study class can focus on labor studies. Here are a list of activities for each grade level to begin the school year.
Pre-school- Kindergarten: In the dress-up or practical life area, provide clothing that reflects work: hats, uniforms, lab coats, tool belts, tools, dress clothes for office workers, hard hats, safety glasses, aprons, bump caps, gloves, yard tools, shovels, boots, dance shoes, etc. Print out large labels with occupational words and place them around the room where students might learn the skills for this job: (house area: ‘chef’, ‘cook’, ‘nurse’ ‘doctor’; science: ‘lab tech’, ‘chemist’; block area: ‘construction’ ‘engineer’, ‘truck driver’).
First through Fourth grades: Encourage students to bring in any special tools, uniforms or material used by a parent or a grandparent in their job. Set up a Career Day. Invite parents to come in a speak about their jobs. Children can write out a list of questions to ask and then compile a book of careers. Each child should get a copy and write the information and illustrate it (or just illustrate it for younger grades). The older students can take notes on what each speaker says and use that to write a short paragraph on the jobs represented.
Sample questions might include:
Why do you like your job?
Why do you think it’s important?
What do you dislike?
Fifth through Eighth Grade: These students can enjoy a career day also. To extend the opportunity, they can research a career they’ve chosen. They should present their research to the class dressed in uniform and demonstrating tools that may be used. Encourage them to be creative but also to research specifics about the job including:
pay and benefits
required education and cost
where to start with the career
dangers or drawbacks
What I like about the job and why I chose it
This age is a great time to begin reading about labor leaders and the history of organized labor. Some labor leaders to explore are: Mother Jones, Mayor Coleman Young, John Lewis, Caesar Chavez, Joe Hill, Walter Reuther and Jimmy Hoffa. This subject makes a perfect way to demonstrate and create a timeline. Students might look at labor in other countries and the political ramifications. Canada, France, the United Kingdom, Poland and Russia are good countries to begin with. See attached links for more information.