Bill Promoting Labor History Curriculum Clears Senate [Hartford Courant]

May 7, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — Samuel Gompers, Big Bill Haywood and the Pullman porters may be coming to a classroom near you.

The Senate approved a bill Wednesday that directs the state Department of Education to provide schools with a curriculum on labor history.

“This is critically important for people to understand the history of this country and how it was formed,” said Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven. “The children of Connecticut have to know that many of the things they take for granted in terms of rights were not freely given by employers but had to be fought for by workers who showed great courage and made great sacrifice.”

Labor unions had been pushing for the legislation for several years, but previous attempts fell short. This year’s version of the bill includes a provision that the education department also develop a curriculum on free market capitalism and its role in developing the U.S. economy.

Several Republican legislators said that for the effort to be evenhanded it should include capitalism as well as labor. But they cited criticisms of the measure, including a concern that the development of a labor curriculum could drain education resources from core subjects.

“We have an unemployment rate that is high, we have struggling school systems, we have education concerns in our community and now we’re adding a curriculum …. that is probably not going to be a necessary element for our kids to get a job,” said Senate Republican leader Len Fasano. “We need to be concentrating on science, math, reading … I respect that this is well-balanced but it should not be a priority.”

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said the state education department already has enough to do.

“Though this bill does also include a provision to teach free markets, which is something many of us on our side of the aisle also wanted to see … I’m still concerned because it does require of the department to add more to their plate, do more work, particularly at a time when they now are burdened with great responsibilities [such as] looking into new curriculum, new testing schemes and … graduation requirements.” she said.

Looney noted that schools will not be mandated to teach labor history. Nor does the bill allocate additional funds to pay for the development of the curriculum.

But Looney said it is important for schoolchildren to learn about Samuel Gompers, the London-born cigar maker who founded the American Federation of Labor, and Big Bill Haywood, an American socialist who led several strikes. They need to know about the Pullman porters, the former slaves who staffed railroad sleeping cars, and the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, which claimed the lives of nearly 150 workers and led to several reforms that modernized labor laws.

“It is critically important for people to understand the history of this country and how it was formed,” he said. “The Czech writer Milan Kundera said, ‘The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.’ We must teach our children to remember and they cannot remember if they are not taught.”

The bill moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.