The war on labor history

May 26, 2011

At a time when unions are under attack from all sides, the right-wing campaign to erase workers' struggle from history books must be met head on, says Brian Tierney.

IF YOU thought the bipartisan crusade to roll back union rights would be enough to soften the saber-rattling of corporate class warfare, think again.

Not content with the legislative assault on workers' rights in states like Wisconsin, Ohio and beyond, the ideologues on the far right of the budget-cutting and union-busting onslaught are also going after the history of labor struggle itself.

A reminder of the academic front in the war on working people was played out over the past several weeks at the University of Missouri, where two labor relations professors nearly lost their jobs thanks to a right-wing smear campaign involving nvasion of privacy and some crafty video editing.

Video footage of Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the university, and her colleague Don Giljum jointly teaching a class on labor relations was distorted in order to pull this out-of-context quote from the mouth of Ancel: "Violence is a tactic, and it's to be used when appropriate--the appropriate tactic."

Judy Ancel
Judy Ancel

Leaving aside the fact that this quote would be utterly uncontroversial had Ancel been teaching a class on, say, U.S. foreign policy instead of labor relations, the reality is that this is not at all what she said.

The footage was obtained from the university's video interconnect system, which allowed Ancel and Giljum to teach the course to two classes located on two separate University of Missouri campuses in Kansas City and St. Louis. And that video fell into the hands of none other than Andrew Breitbart, the right-wing blogger who has made a career out of defaming anyone to the left of Sean Hannity.

"I was just appalled," Ancel told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!, describing her reaction to the video. "I knew it was me speaking, but it wasn't saying what I had said in class."

After posting it on his website, Breitbart's hit job made the rounds on conservative blogs and talk radio, prompting a virulent right-wing campaign to demand the termination of the two professors along with the entire labor studies program.

The intense pressure nearly forced university officials to accept Giljum's conditional resignation offer. But the university reversed course when it came to light that the video was doctored.

"The excerpts that were made public...were definitely taken out of context, with their meaning highly distorted through splicing and editing from different times within a class period and across multiple class periods," the university said in a statement.

Ancel's quote about violence in the video left out the fact that she was herself paraphrasing a statement made by someone interviewed in a film that she screened in her class.

"[H]e represented the kind of thinking that went into the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and then later...he said violence is a tactic, and it's to be used when it's appropriate--the appropriate tactic," the professor told her students.

THE VIDEO'S distortion of Giljum's remarks in class included statements acknowledging the violence in U.S. labor history and expressing his view that violence and "industrial sabotage" may have had their place at certain times.

Again, that statement left out Giljum's comments that followed immediately afterward in which he said, "It [violence] certainly makes you feel a hell of a lot better sometimes. But beyond that, I'm not sure that, as a tactic today, the type of violence or reaction to violence we had back then would be called for here. I think it would do more harm than good."

Before these distortions were exposed, the right was up in arms. Missouri's Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder was interviewed on a Tea Party radio program saying, "They [the professors] sit around...matter-of-factly discussing violent overthrow of the capitalist order or the existing order, the workers taking to the streets and committing violent acts of industrial sabotage."

In other words, these "seditious" labor professors were teaching students about the actual historical facts of labor history in the U.S.

On one level, this was just another sleazy attack by Breitbart and his cohorts. Recent attacks like this one involved edited videos to disparage ACORN, Shirley Sherrod, Planned Parenthood and NPR--attacks that revealed the vile racism, Islamophobia and anti-woman bigotry that are the bread and butter of right-wing attack dogs like Breitbart and his ilk.

But this story also points to the more entrenched history of blacking out labor history in educational curricula. Last year, Texas conservatives managed to rewrite history as they revised social studies curriculum that would affect the content of textbooks used in high schools throughout the country.

As historian Eric Foner noted at the time:

Judging from the updated social studies curriculum, conservatives want students to come away from a Texas education with a favorable impression of: women who adhere to traditional gender roles, the Confederacy, some parts of the Constitution, capitalism, the military and religion. They do not think students should learn about women who demanded greater equality; other parts of the Constitution; slavery, Reconstruction and the unequal treatment of nonwhites generally; environmentalists; labor unions; federal economic regulation; or foreigners.

Over the past several decades, numerous studies of the treatment of labor history in U.S. textbooks have found coverage to be woefully inadequate--to the point of glossing over the subject altogether. In particular, various studies in the 1990s and a more recent report by the American Labor Studies Center found that textbooks generally omitted the role that the labor movement played in the civil rights movement and labor's efforts against discrimination against women and other oppressed groups in the workplace.

An American Labor Studies Center report in 2009 surveyed textbooks published by the four largest textbook companies and observed that labor's role in social progress is given little mention, and major strikes are almost routinely treated as "costly failures, as violent, as lacking public support and backfiring against unions." The often-violent role of employers in strikes is also given short shrift, if it is covered at all.

FEW PEOPLE will remember having learned very much about U.S. labor history in high school. What is considered essential U.S. history in most textbooks excludes the fact that fundamental rights like the right to collective bargaining, the eight-hour workday and the weekend were all things that had to be vigorously fought for, and those fights often entailed a great deal of violence for the simple reason that businesses and government forces would not give in to workers' demands without a fight.

Academics at the university level have sometimes had a reputation of being immune to conservative impulses that permeate other areas of the education system, but this has become less true over the past several decades with the upsurge of robust and well-funded conservative activism on campuses.

Led by conservatives like David Horowitz, author of The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, ultraconservative student groups on campuses around the country have been propped up to combat what they see as the entrenched left-wing radicalism and anti-American thought that dominates academia.

Horowitz's McCarthyite witch-hunts have gone after the careers of many professors, condemning their "leftist indoctrination" in the classroom. Ironically, this attack on academic freedom by Horowitz and others on the right is seen by them as an effort to defend what they call "academic freedom"--or what others would describe as conservative indoctrination.

Unsurprisingly, the notorious billionaire Koch brothers--known for bankrolling the Tea Party movement and state-led attacks on public sector workers--are also pushing their right-wing corporate agenda on college campuses. In 2008, the economics department at Florida State University accepted a $1.5 million grant from a Koch-run foundation in exchange for giving Charles Koch the right to essentially conduct ideological screening in selecting professors.

And as Think Progress reported earlier this month, Koch also virtually owns George Mason University in Virginia through grants and think tanks within that school. Koch has also poured huge sums of money into West Virginia University, Brown University, Troy University and Utah State University in order to push conservative curriculum and other projects.

It was against this backdrop that Professors Ancel and Giljum found themselves in the crosshairs of the anti-worker war against academic freedom and labor history.

Two days after the video was posted on Brietbart's website, Giljum, who also has worked for 27 years as the business agent for the International Operating Engineers Local 148, received a call from the international union president demanding his resignation. Although Giljum was planning to retire in May anyway, he complied and resigned several days before he was set to retire.

As Ancel explained on Democracy Now!, "We never were teaching violence in the classroom...We were talking about the violence in labor history, which is extreme in the U.S., and we were talking about the fact that, in many situations, there is violence, and it's mostly directed at the workers."

Ancel also pointed out the importance of the timing of this attack. The uproar about the professors at the University of Missouri coincided with efforts in the state to push right-to-work bills and other anti-worker legislation.

INDEED, THIS was not an isolated assault on academic freedom--it was an attack on labor education in the context of the wider offensive against public-sector employees.

"I'm a public employee," Ancel told Goodman. "I work for a public university. The labor education programs throughout the country are almost entirely in public universities. And of course they're going to attack the most vulnerable parts of those universities."

Breitbart himself made his intentions clear in April when he announced on Fox News, "We are going to take on education next, go after the teachers and the union organizers."

This most recent attack in Missouri comes on the heels of another anti-labor effort against academics in March when the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy made requests for the public disclosure of private emails written by professors in the labor studies departments at Michigan State University and Wayne State University.

The Republican Party in Wisconsin made similar requests regarding labor professors' emails at the University of Wisconsin. Conservatives were seeking access to emails containing terms such as "Wisconsin," "Scott Walker," "collective bargaining," "rally" and "union." Also fitting into this pattern of attacks on labor history are the efforts of Maine's governor to remove a labor-themed mural from the lobby of Maine's Department of Labor.

The message of all of these anti-worker campaigns is clear: the right not only wants full ownership of our labor, they want the rights to our collective memory as well.

Knowledge about labor history among students is crucial at a time when heightened attacks on workers and unions are taking place throughout the country, including on college campuses. The vindication of Ancel and Giljum was due in part to the fact that their students organized in their defense, writing letters of support and using other means to pressure the university.

In the midst of the war on labor education, students on campuses throughout the country have been engaged in solidarity struggles with workers at their schools who face brutal working conditions, hostile management and anti-union activity. Over the last two months, student activists--many affiliated nationally with United Students Against Sweatshops--have staged sit-ins at the University of Washington, Cornell University, the University of Texas, Rutgers University, Emory University, Northeastern University, Tulane University, the University of Wisconsin, Ohio State University and the College of William and Mary.

Twenty-five students were arrested after occupying the president's office at the University of Washington earlier this month. They were demanding that the university end its contract with campus food-services provider Sodexo, a company that has a reputation of worker abuse.

Other student-labor solidarity actions since April have taken place at the University of Chicago and at the University of Maryland where revelations have surfaced about rampant worker abuse, including sexual assault, racism, management intimidation and other abuses that have led to campus workers referring to their workplace as "the plantation."

These campus struggles raise the urgency of protecting and expanding the academy as a place for teaching and learning about the history of labor and workers' struggle in this country. At a time when workers and unions are under attack, budgets for the poor are being slashed and politicians are recruited by Wall Street to safeguard the wealth of a few, our history of class consciousness and militancy is itself a dangerous weapon against the ruling class.

This is why, as we struggle to make our own history now--defending and advancing our rights and power as workers and other oppressed groups--we must defend the academics who are dedicated to teaching this instructive history of past struggle, especially when they are entrapped in the anti-education dragnet of the right.

In A People's History of the United States, the late radical historian Howard Zinn wrote, "The memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away, and for such people, with such memories, revolt is always an inch below the surface."

Today, there are in fact concerted efforts being made to rob workers of our past. A fight needs to be waged to defend our memory.

First published at Subterranean Dispatches.

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