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Teaching Guide

Teaching History of Labor Unions

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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.

What's Inside Shmoop's History Teaching Guides

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

Objective: 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.

In this exercise, your students will examine this event and discuss the company's culpability. They'll view images and read documents that will help them assess the situation, and they'll also analyze the effect this event had on the formation and strengthening of unions in the U.S.

Then, if you so choose, you can follow the whole thing up with a short writing exercise in which they will analyze the trade union newspaper's assessment of the tragedy.

NOTE: This is a reading-heavy lesson. Consider switching things up throughout by having students read some material independently while using read-alouds for others. 

Length of Lesson: 1-3 class periods (90-120 minutes total). NOTE: To minimize class time, consider assigning the reading in Step One as homework the night before the lesson.

Materials Needed: 

Step One: (To save class time, consider assigning this reading as homework the night before.) 

Have your students read the first three pages of the story of the fire on Cornell's 1911 Triangle Factory Fire page so that everyone is working with the same information. The three pages we're talking about are:  

Step Two: Take a look at some images from the fire with your students. Examine images of the workers and working conditions as well as photos from the fire

Step Three: Ask students to draw upon the knowledge they've gained from the readings in Step One and the images in Step Two to 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?

Step Four: Divide students into small groups and have each group examine one (or more) of the following documents from the "Mourning and Protest" section of the site. Ask them to jot down notes about anything they find particularly interesting, and let them know in advance that they'll need to summarize what they've learned from their document(s) for the rest of the class.

Step Five: Bring the class back together and have students summarize what they read for the rest of the class, pointing out any information they found particularly interesting. 

Psst! If no one brings it up, be sure to ask them what these articles imply about the effect the fire may have had on labor unions.

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

Step Seven: Direct your students to this information about the Investigation & Trial. In addition to the overview, have students read the articles, "Placing the Responsibility" and "147 Dead, No One Guilty."

In small groups, or as a whole class, have students discuss these articles, using the following questions as a guide.

  1. Consider the assessment of blame for this tragedy. Who, ultimately, is to blame for this tragedy? Are there multiple parties that should share the blame? Public agencies? The workers? Or just the owners of the factory? 
  2. Should the factory owners have been acquitted? Why or why not? What stance does the article take? Do you agree or disagree? Why? 

Step Eight: Finally, explore with your students how the fire's aftermath may have affected workers and strengthened the appeal of the union. Ask them to point to specific images, articles, or points of view that suggest unions were either strengthened or weakened by this incident. 

Step Nine (Optional): As a follow up, have students read the "Hostile Employers" article from the American Federationist and respond to the questions below.

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

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?

Keep your thoughts on those questions in mind as you delve into the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

Step One: (To save class time, your teacher may assign the reading in this stepas homework the night before.) 

Read the first three pages of the story of the fire on Cornell's 1911 Triangle Factory Fire page so that everyone is working with the same information. The three pages we're talking about are:  

Step Two: Now take a look at some images from the fire with your classmates and teacher. Examine images of the workers and working conditions as well as photos from the fire

Step Three: Draw upon the knowledge you've gained from the readings in Step One and the images in Step Two to 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?

Step Four: Divide into small groups. Each group will examine one (or more) of the following documents from the "Mourning and Protest" section of the site. Check in with your teacher to see if there are specific articles you need to tackle. 

As you peruse your piece(s), jot down notes about anything you and your group members find particularly interesting. And take good notes! You'll need to summarize what you've learned from your document(s) for the rest of the class.

Step Five: Get back together with the rest of the class share your information while listening to what your classmates learned from their documents. 

Psst! If it doesn't come up naturally, spend a little time discussing what these articles imply about the effect the fire may have had on labor unions.

Step Six: Next take a look at these graphic images, published in the aftermath of the disaster.  Discuss the political message they conveyed.

Step Seven: Time to explore the consequences (aside from the 140+ deaths) of this tragedy. Take a look at this information about the Investigation & Trial. In addition to the overview, be sure to read the articles, "Placing the Responsibility" and "147 Dead, No One Guilty."

In small groups, or as a whole class (your teacher will make the call), discuss these articles, using the following questions as a guide.

  1. Consider the assessment of blame for this tragedy. Who, ultimately, is to blame for this tragedy? Are there multiple parties that should share the blame? Public agencies? The workers? Or just the owners of the factory? 
  2. Should the factory owners have been acquitted? Why or why not? What stance does the article take? Do you agree or disagree? Why? 

Step Eight: Finally, talk with your classmates and teacher about how the fire's aftermath may have affected workers and strengthened the appeal of the union. As much as possible during this discussion, point to specific images, articles, or points of view that suggest unions were either strengthened or weakened by this incident. 

Step Nine (Optional): As a follow up, read the "Hostile Employers" article from theAmerican Federationist and respond to the questions below.

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

WANT MORE HELP TEACHING HISTORY OF LABOR UNIONS?

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