PUBLIC COMMENT ON LABOR HISTORY IN THE SCHOOLS LEGISLATION
By Joan Cavanagh
It began on February 10th with a 40 minute rant by former Connecticut Governor John Rowland on the weekly radio program that he co-hosts, “Church and State.” Inmate # 15623-014, convicted in 2003 of “depriving the public of honest service,” denounced the proposed legislation to teach labor history in Connecticut’s schools as a “communist bill” to “indoctrinate children about unions.”
It’s a wonderful surprise to get 40 minutes of free publicity from such a credible enemy, but it was even more heartwarming to learn how many friends and supporters are out there. The testimony offered at the public hearing before the Education Committee of the State Legislature demonstrated that this initiative has broad support.
- Sen. Martin Looney, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Roland Lemar, stated the case succinctly and clearly: “The history of organized labor is a crucial part of American History. It is little taught as part of the general curriculum. In these times when challenges are being issued to hard won rights, it is crucial that younger workers understand what is at stake…The advocacy of labor unions can be credited for a much higher standard [of working conditions generally] that extends way beyond their own membership.”
- Other speakers highlighted the same themes. Stacey Zimmerman of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), CT State Council wrote, “For a nation that was founded in a Carpenter’s Union hall, the history that binds all who have to work for a day’s wage is sadly ignored.” Beverly Brakeman, Political Representative of the United Auto Workers Region 9A, said that her “sources” for the fact that this history isn’t being taught are her 12 and 16 year old daughters, adding emphatically, “unions are the reason that my daughters will be able to get jobs with benefits and a weekend, and I want them to learn this!”
- John Harrity, President of the State Council of Machinists, argued that, in addition to being an integral part of U.S. history, an “understanding of the employer-employee relationship is key to helping students and families develop ‘life skills’ that will benefit them and contribute to their earning power.”
- The day’s testimony was capped by Jeremy Brecher, whose credentials as a public historian were immediately visible to the legislators. His exhibit, “An Orderly and Decent Government” about the history of representative government in Connecticut is on permanent display at the capitol concourse; and GNHLHA’s “New Haven’s Garment Workers: An Elm City Story” exhibit, for which he wrote the original outline, was also being shown there for the week of March 5-9. “How do we expect young people to relate intelligently to the world of work without some knowledge of how workers have organized themselves in the past?” he asked the legislators. “How do we expect them to grapple intelligently with the problems of today’s changing and extremely challenging workplace without an understanding of how relations in the workplace have changed in the past and how challenges have been met? How do we expect them to be informed participants in the setting and enforcement of rules governing the workplace if they know nothing about the rationale for such rules and how they developed?”
- Also submitting written and/or spoken testimony in support of the legislation were Roch J. Girard, President of the Connecticut Federation of School Commissioners, AFSA; Kimberly Glassman, Director, Foundation for Fair Contract of Connecticut; Sharon Palmer, President of the American Federation of Teachers, CT; Lori Pelletier, Secretary/Treasurer of the Connecticut AFL-CIO; Joelle Fishman of the New Haven People’s Center; Greg Beyer, Vice-President, State Vocational Federation of Teachers, AFT Local 4200A; and Ray Rossomondo and Gayle Hooker of the Connecticut Education Association.
- Concluding the day’s testimony was GNHLHA Board member Steve Kass, coordinator of the legislative effort, who spoke about the Shankar Report which concluded that “U.S. history texts have essentially taken sides in the intense political debate around unionsundefinedthe anti-union side,” adding that “in the face of such depressing news, the GNHLHA hopes to turn around young people’s knowledge of unions and labor history in Connecticut.”