Labor History Lesson Plans: Introducing Students to Workers’ Rights

If you have Saturday and Sunday off as your weekend, you have the labor movement to thank. 

If you are supposed to work 40 hours this week (though many teachers work much more), you have the labor movement to thank. 

Many elements of the modern workplace weren’t common 100 years ago — and many workers today continue to fight for basic protections and care. 

Discussions about labor can start when you talk about the building of the pyramids in Egypt or the European serfs living in the Middle Ages. They can continue through the Industrial Revolution up until your Starbucks order today. Labor is a modern issue and a future issue that is appropriate for any age group to learn about. 

Here are a few ideas to guide your labor history lesson plans. 

Have Honest Discussions About Labor History

Students of any age can learn about the labor movement. While elementary students might not be able to handle some of the more unsavory details, younger learners can still understand what it means to work for a fair wage and have time away from work. 

Former pre-K teacher Mckenna Saady drafted a script at Parents Together that you can follow to explain what Labor Day is all about. Knowing that kids frequently have follow-up questions, Saady provides several responses to help you talk about the minimum wage, the pay gap, affordable childcare and other topics that might come up. You can use these answers in your classroom when talking about labor movements. 

One way to connect Labor Day to kids is to show how children had to work back in the 1800s, when they took on dangerous jobs in factories in order to help their families.

There are also opportunities when discussing labor to provide context for students on why certain practices were common. In an article for Grunge, Debra Kelly explains that child labor was considered practical in the 18th century for families who lived on farms. 

“Children were going to inherit the farm — or marry into living on another — or they were going to inherit the business,” says Kelly. “Kids become adults eventually, and they’d have to know how to do things like plow a field or cook a meal.” 

In the same way that parents today teach their kids to wash dishes and sweep the floor, kids used to learn how to churn butter. While the practice of child labor is inexcusable in our modern culture, at the time it was considered normal. Every family member worked in some way.  

Labor discussions can also be used to talk about cause and effect. Madison Medeiros at SheKnows highlights how the Industrial Revolution brought a lot of positive things to the country. It improved transportation with train travel and introduced the telephone to the world. However, these positive advancements also had drawbacks. In the same way that the rise of factories led to more workers laboring in unsafe conditions, the unjust treatment of employees led to the development of labor laws that are used today.  

Medeiros says you can talk about your own job as a teacher or the jobs of various classroom parents to see how technology changes the modern workplace — and what this means for workers’ rights. For example, one positive aspect of email and the internet is the ability for you to work remotely. The disadvantage is that you are more likely to check your email outside of work hours. 

The technological revolution changed the way we work. People are currently fighting to establish fair wages for contractors (like Uber drivers) and to pass “right to disconnect” laws.

pink sign reading raise the minimum wage; labor history lesson plans concept

Talk About Modern Union Movements and Views

It’s important for students to learn that unionizing isn’t part of the past and that many workers are still fighting for their rights today. While teachers often introduce unions in 19th Century history classes, the right to unionize is a 21st Century issue. 

Nicole Daniels, a staff editor with the Learning Network of The New York Times, shares a lesson plan about Amazon workers unionizing. She includes a free writing prompt, history discussions, questions to reflect on and other resources for teachers. 

Talking about Amazon with kids is easy because they are likely familiar with the brand. You can turn to other labor movements in the country that students might care about or have heard of. 

For example, Mark Engler at the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility has created a discussion guide for talking about workers at Amazon and Starbucks forming unions. Both movements have experienced setbacks, and are good examples of why young people should care about workers’ rights. Unions aren’t just a part of history.

Even before you dive into examples of unions, you can discuss classroom views on unionizing and living in union families. Consider the data shared by Justin McCarthy at Gallup. Seventy-one percent of Americans approve of unions, the highest level since 1965. Additionally, 16 percent of Americans live in a household with at least one union member. Labor unions might hit close to home for some of your students, while others might not realize how active unions are in their area.  

There are several ways to make your lesson plans about labor unions applicable to today. The C-SPAN Classroom features videos, vocabulary and discussions about labor. One lesson starts with a video by journalist Lauren Kaori Gurley on the August 2022 jobs report with terms like unemployment, layoffs, inflation and quit rate. A lesson plan like this can also make students better consumers of news and media.

teachers protesting, holding sign that reads on strike for out students' future; labor history lesson plans concept

Explore Lesson Plans Around Labor History and Unions 

There are many ways to examine the labor movement in subjects outside of history or political science. 

In a language arts class, for instance, students can practice their writing skills by drafting letters of appreciation to unseen workers or people who are often overworked and unappreciated in society. One student might write a letter to the school janitor while another writes a letter to their mail delivery person. You can also create a class poster to give to one person or a team of people. The Mailbox has a template you can use for this lesson plan. 

You can also develop a lesson plan about striking for better conditions. The labor movement doesn’t just have to apply to workers — students have also led strikes to protest unfair conditions. Check out the resources shared by Rachel Fuhrman on the 1968 East Los Angeles school walkouts. The predominantly Mexican American students didn’t have access to the educational opportunities they deserved, so they staged a series of protests. 

Fuhrman also shares resources for the Sí, Se Puede moment by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, which highlighted the harsh conditions of migrant farmworkers in California.

Another way students can connect history to current discussions is with a debate on the four-day school week. You can introduce the concept of weekends and how workers fought for days off and the eight-hour workday. Then challenge students to research the benefits or drawbacks of attending school only four days per week. 

While many kids in your classroom might advocate for an extra weekend day, ask them to consider both sides of the argument. Stephen Sawchuk at Education Week wrote a great piece to familiarize yourself with this debate. 

For additional lesson plan ideas, MiddleWeb’s Susan Curtis curated labor activities that connect history with present-day issues. Her article contains links to videos, activities and photo essays you can use in your labor history lesson plans.

archival black and white photo of a worker operating factory equipment; labor history lesson plans concept

Tap Into Existing Resources 

You don’t have to start from scratch when looking for resources and activities to discuss labor in your classroom. Many organizations have free resources or ideas you can use. Here are a few suggestions to get your creative juices flowing. 

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has a useful page that lists key people in labor history. Each person has a basic biography that highlights their work in the movement. Students can choose one of these people to research or pretend to be these figures in a class discussion. You can even host a talk show with a student who answers as Mother Jones or A. Philip Randolph. 

Younger students can also learn about labor through fun children’s books. Jennifer Jones is the author of “Pencils on Strike” — and a continuing series with scissors, glues, swings and chairs that also go on strike. These are rhyming books that are appropriate for elementary levels. Reading these books is a good way to show kids what might cause people to stand up for themselves and get better treatment. You can read this to students and ask them to write their own poem about striking from an item that inspires them.

Of course, “Pencils on Strike” isn’t the only book you can turn to when introducing unions to students. Astra Publishing House shares a diverse list of books related to workers and unionizing. For example, “Union Made: Labor Leader Samuel Gompers and His Fight for Workers’ Rights” tells the story of labor leader Samuel Gompers and his lifelong fight for workers’ rights. Books like these can start discussions about how unions often fight for better rights outside of the work environment as well. 

Another excellent resource is your local library. The Chicago Public Library, for example, curates materials based on certain themes. You can review their list of movies about workers and the labor movement to find appropriate options and clips for your students. These range from light-hearted movies (like “9 to 5”) to documentaries like “The Harvest.”

You can decide how you introduce labor issues to your classroom. You can lead with funny rhyming books or comical movie scenes and then delve into serious debates and discussions related to the modern workforce. Workers have fought to be heard for more than 200 years — and there’s still a long way to go in receiving fair compensation in a safe working environment.

Images by: davit85/©, mrdoomits/©, LaTerrian McIntosh, The New York Public Library