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Teaching Guide

Teaching History of Labor Unions

Avoid student strikes with Shmoop.


No need to picket—we can make teaching the history of labor unions much easier than it seems.

In this guide you will find

  • activities analyzing the critical milestones of the labor union movement.
  • discussion questions looking at labor unions through a variety of lenses: labor, law, society, and more. (But where were these lenses manufactured?)
  • resources showing students that labor unions are still a big part of society today.

Your class won't go on strike—and hopefully you won't either—with our teaching guide on your side.

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Shmoop is a labor of love from folks who love to teach. Our teaching guides will help you supplement in-classroom learning with fun, engaging, and relatable learning materials that bring history to life.

Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 3-5 Common Core-aligned activities (including quotation, image, and document analysis) to complete in class with your students, with detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes to be sure students are looking at the material through various lenses.
  • Resources to help make the topic feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop’s teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the topic and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 shocked New York City's residents and devastated its working-class community – especially the Jewish immigrants who made up the bulk of Triangle Shirtwaist's young female workers. 

The Kheel Center at Cornell University has put together a rich collection of sources should you be interested in fully exploring this event with your students; they are available here. If you are interested in a shorter introduction, we suggest that you look at the event itself and how it galvanized the union movement among city garment workers.

1. Show your students the images available at this site and discuss the following questions:

  • Was the tragedy preventable?
  • What share of the blame lay with the city?
  • What share of the blame lay with the company?
  • What measures might have reduced the loss of life?

2. Next direct your students to this site, where they can read documents regarding the “mourning and protest” following the fire.

  • Did the company respond wisely to the tragedy?
    • Was its compensation offer adequate?
  • To what extent are the charges levied by The American Federationist fair?
    • What details support its allegations against the shop owners?
      • Why was Porter's and Croker's testimony particularly damaging?
    • Did the Triangle Company seem to learn a lesson from the fire, according to this article?
    • How typical were conditions at the Triangle factory?
    • To what extent does the union paper seem to be exploiting the tragedy?
      • If so, was this exploitation defensible and/or appropriate?

3. Next show your students these graphic images, published in the aftermath of the disaster.  Discuss the political message they conveyed.

4. Finally, direct your students to this site, where they can read about the assessment of blame among public agencies, and this site, where they can read about the acquittal of the factory owners.

Explore with your students how the fire's aftermath may have affected workers and strengthened the appeal of the union.

Instructions for Your Students

In 1911, a fire at New York's Triangle Shirtwaist factory killed 146 workers, most of them young immigrant women. In the investigation that followed, it was discovered that common-sense safety measures had been neglected and at least one of the fire escape doors had been locked.

You will be examining this event in class. You might prepare by thinking about how the public would react to this sort of tragedy and these sorts of revelations today. Who would be held accountable? How would the company respond? Is it conceivable that no one would be held to blame or forced to accept responsibility?


Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary & Analysis    Timeline    People    Facts    Photos    Best of the Web    Citations    
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