Unions need to take the lead in getting labour education into our schools


Pop quiz: Can you name three workplace benefits won by Canadian unions in the past century? What are some of the biggest labour organizations in Canada? What is the Rand formula?


Though students may learn briefly about the Winnipeg General Strike in history classes, there is little connection made to the significance of organized labour in Canada today. (Wikipedia photo)


If you’re actively involved in the union movement, chances are you’re able to answer questions like these. But if you’re an average Canadian high school student, that’s likely not the case.

When young people enter the workforce for the first time, they generally know little about the organizations that fought for such benefits as maternity leave, paid vacation time, workers’ compensation, and the weekend. And yet, about 30 per cent of them will become union members, according to current figures on union density in Canada (a number that has been dropping steadily from a high of 38 per cent in the 1980s).

These young workers – and their non-unionized counterparts – should know the basic facts about unions: that they lead to higher wages, better working conditions, and more job security. However, given the relentless, effective, and ongoing right-wing assault on unions in recent decades, they might well be more inclined to view unions with indifference, or even suspicion.

Here’s where unions themselves have a role to play. As the only major organizations with the resources and self-interest to make it happen, labour organizations can develop large-scale educational programs for high schools to help teach young people about the role of unions in society, and to put a human face on organized labour. The programs could be geared toward relevant classes such as history, trades, and business.

I recently invited the president of our local labour council to speak to my students about sweatshops in the Global South. The reaction of the students indicated they’d never made the connection between humane working conditions and organized labour.

Several examples exist of regional labour organizations taking relatively small steps into public schools. The Toronto and York Region Labour Council recently developed a presentation aimed at high school classes called “How Have Unions Helped Us?”. Both Quebec’s and B.C.’s labour federations have well-developed youth education programs dealing with worker rights as well as health and safety. And labour-affiliated workplace safety programs exist in all three Prairie provinces.

Individual unions have also joined the game. The United Food and Commercial Workers Canada runs a program called “Democracy @ Work,” which the union estimates has reached more than 10,000 students since 2001. The Canadian Auto Workers Union (CAW) has also run a variety of school-based labour education programs, which at one point reached 125,000 students across Canada each year according to CAW’s national coordinator of health, safety, and environment, Ken Bondy.

To put those numbers in perspective, consider that there are about 700,000 high school students in Ontario alone. Clearly, hundreds of thousands of Canadian students are graduating without any first-hand interactions with organized labour.

Some within the labour movement argue that unions are the wrong organizations to be taking the lead on labour education in public schools. Dr. Alan Hall, director of labour studies at the University of Windsor, runs a program where students in his department deliver presentations on labour laws and workers’ rights to local high-school classes. Hall says the program has become so popular that he no longer needs to promote it. He attributes its success partly to the fact that it doesn’t come from unions directly. “A lot of teachers just aren’t interested in bringing the unions in,” says Hall.

Indeed, unions are certainly sensitive to charges of being “too political” in classroom presentations. “We don’t want to go into schools and tell people who the best party is for them,” says Bondy of CAW. Similarly, the Quebec Federation of Labour’s guidelines for classroom presenters warns against the “self-promotion” of unions in the classroom.

It’s worth noting, however, that business-friendly entrepreneurship programs like Junior Achievement (JA), sponsored by a who’s who of corporate giants, are routinely welcomed into classrooms without a whisper of protest – this despite the fact that students are many times more likely to make a living as a waged or salaried worker than as a business owner.

“There certainly is a need to counter all the anti-union stuff that [students] tend to hear,” says Hall. “High-school curriculums don’t really address labour history in a meaningful way.”

And it’s hard to imagine who else but unions themselves would have the resources and the organizational depth necessary to take on an educational campaign of the scope needed to counter pervasive anti-union sentiment in the corporate media.

However it chooses to do it, labour needs to get its message into schools – and soon.

Ben Sichel is a high-school teacher and proud member of the Dartmouth local of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU). Versions of this article have been published in Briarpatch magazine and Aviso, the magazine of the NSTU. Follow Ben on Twitter: @bsichel

About Ben Sichel

Ben Sichel teaches Spanish and social studies, including Mi’kmaq Studies 10 and African Canadian Studies 11, at Prince Andrew High School in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. He has a Master’s degree focusing on anti-racist education, equity and diversity from Mount Saint Vincent University. He is also the Dartmouth Local representative for the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. A strong advocate for equitable, high-quality, diversified education, Ben believes teacher unions have the power to make a difference in students' and parents' lives. Follow him on Twitter: @bsichel


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8 Responses to Unions need to take the lead in getting labour education into our schools

  1. Tom July 26, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    I’m not sure how students today would interpret the Winnipeg General Strike. It bears similarity to the G20 protests, except that in Toronto it was the police goons with truncheons who were union members.

  2. Paul W. Bennett July 30, 2013 at 8:24 pm #

    Welcome to VoicEd.ca, Ben. It’s been mighty quiet on the site lately and you have a way of stirring the passions.

    Are you proposing that the Social Studies classroom become a bully pulpit for trade union education? If so, then I think you will get a vigorous response from those of us who still believe in teaching “all sides” of the critical issues we face as Canadians.

    Organized labour is threatened in Canada, but I’m not sure this is a strategy worthy of pursuing. It will likely backfire above Grade 9 when students start filtering out the inherent biases of such curricula.

    Having said that, I’m all in favour of including working class history, labour union movements, and the “class struggle” in contemporary studies courses. My own text book, Canada: A North American Nation (1989 and 1995), was one of the first to adopt a structuralist interpretation of the rise of the corporate industrial state. Reading that book every student clearly grasped the centrality of capital and labour in the evolution of modern Canada and a rel sense of “First Nations” perspectives.

    Why not consider teaching labour and unionism in mainstream courses? I personally had great success organizing field trips to GM Oshawa and Canada Packers, including a full session with the union local executive. One of my fondest memories is of a Grade 12 Economics Simulation on Collective Bargaining. It lasted a week and the students were asked to play roles in management and union and to negotiate a collective agreement. It taught them a great deal about the value and meaning of collective bargaining.

    Teaching labour education the way you have suggested runs the risk of devolving in to proselytizing, although I know that is not your intent. I feel the same way about teaching Mi’ kmaw History in isolation, as you well know. I tend to feel that a balanced, fair-minded approach, welcoming competing visions and interpretations is what truly engages students, especially when the goal is to encourage critical, independent thinking in the Social Studies classroom.

  3. Ben Sichel August 1, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Hi Paul,

    I’m glad to hear I’ve stirred your passions. I’ll ignore your more ridiculous language about bully pulpits and so forth and address what I read as your main argument: you seem to be saying that unions should not be involved or permitted in public education settings at all, because allowing them would somehow be “biased” and unfair. The corollary here is that not allowing unions in would be somehow “neutral” and “unbiased.”

    Of course, there is no such thing as true neutrality, and banning unions from coming to speak in the classroom would be just as political a choice as letting them in. On the other side of things, however, Junior Achievement has very sophisticated programs that come into the classroom and teach students about the value of entrepreneurship in free-market capitalism (even though most small businesses fail). Similarly, no business education teacher would think twice about inviting a successful CEO or investment banker in to speak to her class.

    If you think unions should not be allowed to come in to deliver education programs to students, should these others be banned as well?

    Students currently know next to nothing about how unions work, what their history is, how their structure is democratic and participatory, etc., and I happen to think it is perfectly appropriate for unions to offer to teachers of history, business and trades courses – who often may not know very much themselves – to come in and speak to students on these topics.

    Re-reading your comment I think you interpreted my article to be about developing full courses in labour studies – I actually was thinking more about presentations or week-long workshops. Though I do think a labour studies course or unit is a good idea as well.

    Since you brought it up, I’ll also mention that your comment about “teaching Mi’kmaw history in isolation” demonstrates to me an unfortunate lack of understanding of what the Mi’kmaq Studies course in Nova Scotia is all about. It’s the same idea as saying that labour studies would be inherently biased while business studies isn’t (which to be fair, you haven’t said explicitly). The Mi’kmaq Studies was fought for by the Mi’kmaq community, like the African Canadian Studies course was fought for by the Black community, precisely because the mainstream Canadian history course was not at all neutral and inclusive, and still isn’t. Progress certainly has been made in terms of content in that course, but it’s an entirely different matter to teach those history courses in an Indigenous-centred or Afrocentric way. But this is perhaps a discussion for another time.

  4. Paul W. Bennett August 1, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Methinks you doth protest too much! Inviting trade unionists into the classroom to present their point of view is perfectly fine with me, as long as its presented in context within a curriculum that encourages independent, critical thinking and welcomes all informed points of view. In other words, as long as the classroom doesn’t begin to feel like an annex of the union hall down the street.

    Proselytizing of any kind in the History and Social Studies Classroom has always made me feel uncomfortable. I feel the same way, whether its Junior Achievement singing the praises of unfettered capitalism or the Canadian Labour Congress handout version of labour history being taught verbatim to unsuspecting students. I’ve seen both of these practices in schools and they do little to spark the kind of critical inquiry that we should be instilling in our students.

    With regard to narrow casting Canadian history, I do support the Dominion Institute’s 2009 Report Card finding on the Nova Scotia curriculum. Segmenting Grade 10 Canadian history up into Mi’kmaq Studies and African Canadian Studies versions earned Nova Scotia a C- grade. It’s most unfortunate, to me, that all young Nova Scotians are denied the opportunity to take a course presenting the totality of the Canadian experience in all its complexity. That is why I injected that point –signalling the propensity of Nova Scotian Social Studies curriculum planners to segment the curriculum. Heaven knows, someone might come up with the crazy idea that we need a Labour Studies version as a substitute for pan-Canadian history.

  5. Ben Sichel August 1, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    Of course re a “curriculum that encourages independent, critical thinking and welcomes all informed points of view.” My point though is that the accusation of bias is trotted out when someone floats the idea of labour education, but not in the context of business education which happens routinely. Also, “proselytizing” in social studies and other classes is most often done much more subtly, in terms of whose point of view on history is accepted as a matter of course and whose is not mentioned at all. I’d much rather teachers and guest speakers be open about their biases up front and be challenged on them accordingly (and students rarely fail to rise to the occasion), rather than present some mythical veil of neutrality.

    Similarly, Canadian history classes have utterly failed since Confederation at providing a fair perspective of “the totality of the Canadian experience in all its complexity.” At best we have what Mi’kmaq scholar Marie Battiste calls the “add and stir” model of diversity, which still uses the same old Eurocentric narrative with a few bits of Others thrown in. Scholars and communities of colour have roundly rejected these models, which is why courses like Mi’kmaq Studies and African Canadian Studies were developed. Perhaps in some magical post-racial, post-colonial future society we might seriously think about one course that could begin to encompass all perspectives fairly; however we are light years away from that. Mi’kmaq Studies and African Canadian Studies are no more “segmented” courses than Canadian History; they just name honestly who’s at the centre of the story. (And in my humble opinion, students really should take all 3 of these courses.)

    Labour studies as a Canadian history option, eh? i.e. Canadian history that centres a social-history, working-class perspective? Sounds like an interesting idea to me…

  6. John Myers August 21, 2013 at 7:34 am #

    Content debates in history tend to be sterile and ineffective.
    Why do i say this?
    1. The data going back nearly a century strongly suggests that students do mot remember the history they are “supposed” to.
    2. What to teach about the past far exceeds what is possible for anyone to swallow, let alone chew and digest to get the appropriate nutritional value.
    3. Advocacy group pushing for their bit will always get pushback so nothing really gets changed.

    So, what can be done?
    Perhaps we need to look at content differently.

    My opening gambit here . . . content IS important, but not in the way we usually think.


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