Teaching About Labor Issues and the Wisconsin Worker Fight Back

wisconsin worker protest

Photo credit: Barbara J Miner

Labor historian Mark J. Naison called the movement of workers that began in Wisconsin and spread to other states last year "the most important labor struggle in the United States in the 21st century."

The uprising of workers in Wisconsin and other states presents a powerful opportunity to teach students about what the protests are about and why their teachers and neighbors joined the struggle.  It's an opportunity to critically examine issues, and to model for students responsible civic action and engagement in the political process.

As members of teacher unions, we have an additional responsibility, summarized by the late Howard Zinn in an interview published in Transforming Teacher Unions:

"If teacher unions want to be strong and well-supported, it's essential that they not only be teacher unionists but teachers of unionism. We need to create a generation of students who support teachers and the movements of teachers for their rights."

Embrace "teachable moments" like the Wisconsin Uprising and share with us in the comments what resources you are using, how you are using them, and how your students are responding.

We recommend using these resources, which you can find at our Zinn Education Project website. While the resources are listed by reading levels, many of the titles can be adapted for all grades.

We have used picture books with high school students and adults as discussion starters.  


Picture  Books about Labor


Books, Films, Posters, Songs, Websites

Picture Books about Organizing

Teaching lessons about labor and human rights struggles

Labor Lessons

Labor Matters (grades 6-12)—from Teaching Tolerance. "This lesson draws on students' prior knowledge to help them understand the importance of the labor movement, and gives them buy-in that can drive further inquiry."

Universal Declaration of Human Rights full text (Article 23 is particularly appropriate to current worker uprisings)—Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948. Following this historic act, the General Assembly called upon all Member nations to publicize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and "to cause it to be disseminated, displayed, read, and expounded principally in schools and other educational institutions..."

Questions one might ask students:

Poem: "Workers of the World Awaken!" by Joe Hill. For a writing lesson, ask students to:

Additional Resources

The Wisconsin Labor History Society has many good resources and books.

Curriculum on Labor History—Includes a section on the modern labor movement and an excellent timeline on the history of the U.S. labor movement. For those who need to justify teaching this in our "standards" dominated environment, there is a section that ties labor history to the Wisconsin Model Academic Standards.

Labor History Lesson Plans—a comprehensive and diverse list from the American Labor Studies Center.


Portrait of a Protest: Madison, Wisconsin—by Kevin J. Miyazaki. Teachers might ask students to note as many different signs/messages and types of peoples/ unions/ etc. that are represented.

"This is What Democracy Looks Like!" YouTube video (all ages)—Can be used for a discussion of what democracy is. It's not just the formal structures, but the long struggle in our country to make our democracy include all people.

News video clip: Chris Hayes and Naomi Klein from The Nation explain why Wisconsin protests matter—"Naomi Klein discussed how what Walker is doing is a classic example of the Shock Doctrine, where politicians create a crisis and then use that crisis as an excuse to push through horribly unpopular economic policies. And as Hayes and Klein both explained, what ends up happening in Wisconsin is not only going to have local implications, but national as well."

Student-Friendly Articles About Labor Unions

IndyKids is a free newspaper that aims to inform children (grades 4-7) on current news and world events from a progressive perspective and to inspire a passion for social justice and learning. Articles from IndyKids:

Teaching Idea: Have students work in pairs or groups of three to read the articles online or printed versions. Have them share with their classmates what they learned about unions and the importance of working people uniting to better their lives.

What is a Labor Union?

Two Workers Tell Us About Their Jobs

Labor Holidays

Someday, You Could Be a Farmworker Organizer

Cookie Makers Win Strike, Now Face Factory Closing

Profit Above Safety: Coal Mining Disaster Raises Questions About Company

Defending Workers' Rights, Wisconsinites Take Over Capitol

Articles, Opinion Editorials, & Commentary to Use in Classrooms

Larry Miller's Blog—Larry Miller is a school board member in Milwaukee and Rethinking Schools editor. He posts current news and information at his blog.

Unions, Work, and Class in the Early Childhood Classroom—by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards. "By preschool age, children absorb messages from both society and family about the value and importance of different kinds of work, including what their families do. They are influenced by the prevailing misinformation about what makes people affluent, or poor."

"Stop Walker's Sleight of Hand"—by Ellen Bravo. A worthwhile read for parents and staff and for use with high school students. Lots of discussion could be generated from the article about "freeloaders," "haves and have nots," and who should take responsibility for the crisis we are in.

"Lessons for Wisconsin from the Flint Sit-Down Strikes of 1936-37"—by Mark Naison. "Though the Wisconsin struggle is being led by government workers, and the Flint Strikes involved workers involved in automobile production, both movements took place during the worst economic crisis of their era and were fighting for the same goal- collective bargaining rights for working people through a union of their own choosing- and were much more about dignity and respect than about income."

"Is 'Solidarity' Making a Comeback? Thoughts on the Return of a Long-Neglected Concept"—by Mark Naison. “What is going on? Why are labor unions, which have been on the defensive for the last thirty years, able to mount this kind of movement? Why is 'Solidarity,' out of favor for many years, suddenly back in fashion?”

High school student Jacob Carrell's reflections on being a part of the Wisconsin Worker Protests—"... I stand with my mother, who has an incurable chronic illness. But she has healthcare. And for her benefits, I thank the union.  I stand with my father who is a public employee. But he has a good education, and is compensated for his hard work. And for our families prosperity, I thank the union..."

Wisconsin's Political Crisis Is a Good Deal More Serious Than Its Fiscal Crisis—by John Nichols for The Nation. "So why is Governor Walker rushing to act now? Why is he doing so with a bill that massively extends his own authority over cabinet agencies while creating new positions to be filled by his political cronies? And why is he claiming that it is necessary to take away the collective bargaining rights of state, county, municipal, and education unions in order to address the issue?"

What's Happening in Wisconsin Explained—by Andy Kroll at Mother Jones. Includes "the basics" about what's happening in Wisconsin and daily updates from reporters on the ground in Madison.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker: Funded by the Koch Bros.—by Andy Kroll at Mother Jones. From the article: "Charles and David Koch are conservative titans of industry who have infamously used their vast wealth to undermine President Obama and fight legislation they detest, such as the cap-and-trade climate bill, the health care reform act, and the economic stimulus package."

Wisconsin GOP Bill Allows State to Fire Employees for Strikes, Walk-outs—by Andy Kroll at Mother Jones.

The Best Resources for Learning About Attacks on Teachers & Other Public Sector Workers in Wisconsin—by Larry Ferlazzo. An exhaustive list of articles, commentary, amateur video, and news clips about the Wisconsin protests and their national implications.

Are You There, Mr. President? Madison is Calling—by guest blogger and former Colorado educator Peggy Robertson, on Anthony Cody's blog at EdWeek. "This week, for the first time, I have hope. Watching the public workers of Madison, Wisconsin protest and ask to be heard made me sit up a bit straighter. The American people have a voice! I saw democracy in action."

Wisconsin Power Play—by Paul Krugman from the New York Times. "For what’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin—and eventually, America—less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy."

Shock Doctrine U.S.A. - by Paul Krugman from the New York Times. "Here’s a thought: maybe Madison, Wisconsin, isn’t Cairo after all. Maybe it’s Baghdad—specifically, Baghdad in 2003, when the Bush administration put Iraq under the rule of officials chosen for loyalty and political reliability rather than experience and competence."

Why is collective bargaining good for my classroom?—by iTeachQ. "Having collective bargaining rights allows us to question dangerous policy, stand up for our students, and push for education practices that educate all of our students fairly, equitably, and adequately."

Wisconsin Labor Group Calls for General Strike if Walker Budget Repair Bill is Approved—by Steven Verburg at Larry Miller's blog. "Richard A. Epstein, a professor at the University of Chicago, said he sees a strong probability of a major strike because national labor leaders know that if they lose this battle in Wisconsin, other states will fall."

12 Things You Need to Know About the Uprising in Wisconsin—by Joshua Holland for AlterNet

Cuts to Public Employees Would Punish Wisconsin's Economy—by Jack Norman of the Institute for Wisconsin's Future. "Gov. Scott Walker's plan to slash take-home pay for public workers would destroy about 10,000 jobs in Wisconsin's private sector."