Labor Matters

Draw on your students' prior knowledge to help them understand the importance of the labor movement.
Grade Level

  • Students will understand their connection to the history of organized labor
  • Students will identify major strategies and tactics of labor organizers
  • Students will consider ways to apply these or other tactics to improve working conditions today
  • Students will identify some major figures in the history of the labor movement, and recognize the role of average, less-celebrated workers in the success of that movement.


To understand the debate over the Employee Free Choice Act, one must understand the basics of the labor movement and union organization. That's not easy, in a world in which union organization has hit a low point. Fewer than ten percent of American workers today are unionized, compared to 35 percent in the mid-20th century. Yet we all benefit from rules such as the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, and workplace safety regulations.

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.

Additional Resources

Based on issues raised in the SPLC report, Injustice on Our Plates: Immigrant Women in the U.S. Food Industry, Teaching Tolerance developed seven theme-based lessons. Through selected readings and activities, students will explore issues surrounding our nation’s dependence on immigrant labor and the realities of life at the bottom of the economic ladder. These lessons can help students better understand the impact on their lives of undocumented immigrants, like the women who share their stories in the report.


1. Ask your students to raise their hands if they are currently working, or have held jobs in the past.

2. Ask them what sort of jobs they held, and write their answers on the board. How much are they making per hour? Write those answers on the board.

3. Ask students to describe the concept of the minimum wage. Do they know what the minimum wage is for their area and their job? What are the limits on the number of hours students can work, and what safety regulations are in place?

4. Ask students if they can explain the origins of the minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek. Some may be able to say that a federal minimum wage was created in the 1930s, or that labor unions pushed for the 40-hour week. But can they talk specifics? What actions did workers and activists take to make sure a minimum wage was established in law, and was enforced?

5. Give your students a chance to discover the answers to these questions. Divide students into groups of four or five, and give each group copies of one of the following articles: "American Labor," "Mother Jones," "Samuel Gompers," "Fair Labor Standards Act" or "Seattle General Strike: Laundry Workers".

6. Tell students to work with their group to read their articles and answer the following questions:

  • According to your article, who led the push for the minimum wage and a limit to the workweek?
  • Why did they want these changes?
  • Who opposed them and why?
  • What tactics did supporters of the minimum wage and the limited workweek use to achieve their goals?
  • What tactics did opponents use?
  • What terms in this article were new to you? Can any of your fellow students explain what they mean?

7. Tell students to write down their answers to each of these questions, because they will be presenting their findings to other students in a few minutes.

8. Allow students ten minutes or more to work on their answers. Then divide the students into new groups. Each group should include one member of each of the former groups. In other words, each group should contain one person who read each of the articles you passed out.

9. Tell students to work with their groups to complete a brief history of the movement to create a minimum wage and the 40 hour workweek. The history should answer the following questions.

  • What people and organizations are responsible for the federal minimum wage and the 40-hour workweek?
  • How long did these people/organizations struggle for these changes?
  • How did these people and organizations make voices heard?
  • What were working conditions like before the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938?
  • If we were to lead a movement for improved working conditions today (for instance, raising the "subminimum" for under-20 workers to the same minimum wage other workers enjoy), how would we do it?
  • What terms and ideas from this history are new to you? What ideas do you want to learn more about?

10. Give students enough time to discuss and compile their answers. Then ask each group to present its findings. You may want to ask each different group to present on just one of the questions.

11. Make a note of students' answers to the last question. Concepts such as collective bargaining or sit down strikes may be foreign to your students. Explain them or give your students a chance to research and define the terms themselves. Students will build on this knowledge in the next lesson.

Extension Activity

To take the lesson a step farther, teachers who have Internet access can show students news coverage of the recent union action at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago. Ask students to identify the tactics these activists used and the demands they made. Your students can do additional research to discover the outcome of the strike.

Extension Activity