Labor education starts in school

Giving K-12 students the language, information, and tools they need to protect themselves from workplace exploitation is a critical tool to reversing the nation’s capitalism-fueled inequality.

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American society is steeped in narratives about economic prosperity shaped by capitalist ideas of individualism and a corporate culture of exploitation. Children are exposed to such ideas in schools and via pop culture and are required to put them into practice at a young age by proving their worth in ever-competitive environments to win college entry or employment. But rarely are young people taught about their rights as workers and about the naturally adversarial role between employers and employees. In California, thanks to labor organizers, that’s about to change.

Assemblymember Liz Ortega, who has been a respected labor leader in the state as Statewide Political Director for AFSCME Local 3299, and whose daughter is a public-school student, authored a labor education bill, AB 800, which just passed the California legislature in September. The bill, which Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law, requires all public and charter schools to mark “Workplace Readiness Week” at the end of each April. But such a benign description obscures (perhaps intentionally?) the fact that it is a labor education bill.

Many colleges and universities have departments that study labor, such as the UCLA Labor Center or the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. But, generally speaking, the starkest exposure to labor education that K-12 students currently get is if and when their unionized teachers go on strike. For example, when Seattle-area teachers went on strike in 2015, the Seattle Times published a handy guide on how parents could explain to their kids why teachers were skipping the classroom. The kids might have been primed to understand what was happening had they already been getting some labor education in the classroom.

California has led the nation in introducing K-12 students to ideas about organized labor. In 2012, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that declared the month of May as Labor History Month. Teaching students about the rich history of labor organizing in the U.S. can offer a solid foundation upon which to inform them about their own rights in the workplace. AB 800 does precisely that: teaching younger generations about labor in a way that doesn’t reinforce capitalist values and corporate ethos.

Unsurprisingly, conservative forces have denounced such education. The anti-union think tank Public Service Research Foundation, which routinely churns out treatises critical of labor organizing, in 2016 published a lengthy screed denouncing Labor History Month as a form of “propaganda.” “One can only imagine the howling from union lobbyists if a California State legislator introduced a bill establishing ‘Capitalism is Cool Week’ in public schools,” wrote author Kevin Dayton.

But our nation is so steeped in ideas that reinforce the “coolness” of capitalism that there is no need for explicit pro-capitalist education. Take “National Manufacturing Day,” marked every year on October 6. The day is touted as “manufacturing’s biggest annual opportunity to inspire the next generation, positively shift perceptions about our industry, and build the foundation for the manufacturing workforce of the future.”

In Ohio this year, hundreds of students are marking National Manufacturing Day by touring factories to try to imagine what it’s like to be an industrial worker. A local Chamber of Commerce representative stated that the tour was a way for corporations to tell their “story to the next generation workforce.” It is highly unlikely the tours will educate children about the predatory nature of profit-seeking corporate employers who may refuse to pay overtime, counteract union drives, cut corners on safety and workplace regulations, or even engage in wage theft.

High school students are routinely trained in “job readiness” and career preparation. For example, the federal Department of Education launched a program in 2022 to boost what’s called “career-connected learning.” Such training is intended to ensure children shape themselves to meet the needs of existing jobs but not how young people can protect themselves from exploitation.

In contrast to how we currently train kids to think about work, AB 800 is intended to help young people “enter the workforce with a strong understanding of their rights as workers, as well as their explicit rights as employed minors.” Further, the bill hopes, “to equip pupils with this knowledge to protect them from retaliation and discrimination, to ensure that these young workers receive all wages and benefits to which they are entitled, to empower them to refuse unsafe work when necessary, and to prepare them to assert their labor rights whenever these rights are threatened.”

Such education is crucial at a time when increasing numbers of minors are entering the workforce, thanks in large part to a Republican-led loosening of child labor laws. Vulnerable children make ideal low-wage workers from a corporate, profit-maximizing perspective and are often the victims of labor violations. Therefore, according to Ortega, “[t]eaching our youth about their rights at work is essential education―and it could save their lives.”

Learning about workers’ rights is a good start, but it’s not enough. Even when workers are well-informed about what they deserve from employers, they don’t have the power to do much more than resign and look for another job. What gives AB 800 teeth is that it specifically requires K-12 students to be educated, “on their right to join or organize a union at their workplace.”

The Economic Policy Institute estimated that in 2022 the United States’ unionized workforce increased by 200,000 and tens of millions of workers wanted to join a union but couldn’t. Nonunion jobs are being added to the workforce at a faster rate than union jobs. The nation requires an army of young union organizers to compensate for decades of decline in unionization, and currently most schools do not educate children on how they can organize their workplaces when employed.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, chief officer of the California Labor Federation, which promoted AB 800, said, “Requiring that high school students be taught their rights as employees… empowers young people with the information and tools they need to understand their rights as workers and protects them against workplace abuses.”

Already younger Americans are enthusiastic about labor organizing. “Gen Z” is seen as “the most pro-union generation alive today.” It’s no wonder, given the stark and ever-increasing wealth and income inequality the nation is struggling with. Teaching children about their rights in the workplace and about forming labor unions is a necessary antidote to correcting such disturbing economic trends.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a radio and television show that airs on Pacifica stations KPFK and KPFA and will begin airing on Free Speech TV. She is the former founder, host and producer of KPFK Pacifica’s popular morning drive-time program “Rising Up With Sonali,” based in Los Angeles. She is also the co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission, a U.S.-based non-profit solidarity organization that funds the social, political, and humanitarian projects of RAWA.

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