A Modest History of American Labor



I grew up in a union household. And truth be told, the benefits of the Steel Workers Union saw me through childhood, high school, and college, making possible my life’s work as an educator. With a combination of post-war prosperity, cheap hydro power from the Columbia River, and full industrial production at Kaiser Aluminum, my ambitions became possible.

Of course, at the time, I didn’t grasp the real cost paid by earlier generations for my opportunities. That is until I earned my degree in American History and began teaching. What I found in lesson preparation was a grim drama of determined people facing intimidation and violence. Eventually their valor made possible the emergence of America as a global economic power.

Labor strikes in the 19th Century were especially violent, frequently bathed in bloodshed, betrayal and cruelty. Functioning under the doctrine of “The Gospel of Wealth,” industrialists viewed workers as nothing more than a minor component in mass production. Government at all levels reliably sided with owners to quash any attempts labor made to realize better conditions.

Andrew Carnegie in particular detested unions, and to curb organizing dispersed immigrant workers of different tongues aside one another on the production lines. Language barriers minimized the threat of unionizing.

Another handy device, the Injunction, permitted state governors to legally use State or Federal troops in crushing workers efforts. A governor could claim interstate commerce was impeded, meaning rail carriers couldn’t get mail or goods transported. Once troops were deployed, guns blazing, strikers stood no chance.

One memorable use of the injunction concerned the Pullman Strike of 1894. Employees of the Pullman Palace Car Company endured lives dominated by the company’s powerful owner, George Pullman.

Workers lived in the company town of Pullman, Illinois. All utilities, rents, and other fees were set by the the powerful industrialist, George Pullman himself. Following the onset of the Panic of 1893, Mr. Pullman cut hourly wages, but held the line on municipal fees. Supported by the American Railway Union, (the ARU) workers voted to strike, demanding fairness during the economic downturn.

Strike leaders knew that they must, at all costs, avoid a federal injunction. To bypass any possibility of inviting trouble, the strikers took care that trains continued to move through the state. Rail workers aiding the Pullman strikers detached Pullman Cars, parked them on side tracks, and reconnected the trains.

George Pullman was not amused.

Soon enough the U.S. Attorney General issued the inevitable injunction, permitting federal troops to enter the fray. Some thirty strikers died at the hands of troopers, with many more wounded.

The Pullman Strike ended in government-sponsored violence, but this time the heavy-handed tactics used by Pullman left the general public uneasy. For a country that touted liberty and freedom, the authoritarian power flexed by the industrialist felt rather un-American.

Other labor disputes followed the same pattern; The Haymarket Riot in 1886, the Homestead Strike of 1892, all broken up by militias, soldiers, the police, or hired guns. In 1914 the Ludlow Massacre witnessed the Colorado militia using machine guns to mow down striking miners, women, and children.

Today unions remain controversial. However the role labor has played in America’s development is essential to remember. Labor Unions, in partnership with Capital, built the American middle class, and in return the middle class made the prosperity of this nation possible.

Have a thoughtful Labor Day

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both titles available on Kindle.

Doesn’t Change Anything


There are folks out there in America who object to the term bellicose when describing Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The Texas State School Board a few years ago objected to the term “capitalism,” deeming it too loaded with negative meaning. Okay, play with terminology, putty up and pretty up the image of the past on state standards and guides, because it really makes no difference in the classroom.

Recently the College Board acquiesced to political pressure on AP US History curriculum objectives. I can understand the thinking behind this move by those who design and correct the yearly three hour exam. Those designers simply don’t need the controversy, nor do they need states to eliminate AP US from American classrooms. But the compromise actually actuates few modifications in day to day lessons, speedily delivered by harried AP teachers. Reality dictates the content of the course, and limited by time and the massive content, most are lucky to reach bellicose Ronald Reagan before the annual May exam.

The painting above depicts General Washington’s Farewell to his Officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York. The work was the creation of artist Alonzo Chappel, and commemorates a party hosted by the victorious, but solemn Washington. This same picture, over a century later, was viewed by teetotalers with dismay. Prohibitionists, concerned by the tavern setting, especially with the wine carafe and goblet resting the table simply scrubbed the image out. Easy enough. Adjust the past to fit today’s present.

D7XFTA Washington taking command of the Army and Washington's farewell to his officers - two scenes from George Washington's Military life

D7XFTA Washington taking command of the Army and Washington’s farewell to his officers – two scenes from George Washington’s Military life

Yet, resurfacing the past, doesn’t actually change anything. Alcohol played a huge role in Colonial America. It just did. In fact, with reference to the 1980’s, all an instructor has to do is produce a couple of line graphs of military spending from 1981 to 1989. Any kid can deduce the trend in military expenditures. Read a couple of speeches in class–Ike’s Farewell Address to the country for example, and students certainly understand the deafness of the Reagan Administration to General Eisenhower’s cautionary words on the perils of the military-industrial complex.

And all those critics who scorn the notion of teaching higher level thinking haven’t spent a moment working with high school students. You can’t fool these young people, they are a lot smarter than you think. Any examination at primary materials, aside from textbooks, or any other ancillary stuff reveals a truth sans any political spin.

So go ahead and bleach the course objectives. Go ahead and whitewash topics such as the genocide of Native peoples, or the insider manipulation that has torpedoed the stock market over and over. It doesn’t matter really. I always told my students that the greatest thing about American History is that we examine it, warts and all, with eyes bravely open. That’s is the source and the strength of our nation’s greatness.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the memoir, River of January

AP History: Learning to Think


My computer was on the blink, and a friend came over to fix it. Sitting around the table, waiting for some curative program to upload, we got to talking about all the world’s problems. Soon enough the discussion moved to kids and education. Frustrated, he had just left a math position at an alternative high school, while I had just retired after a long career in public schools. We found we agreed on many, many points. In particular he still felt exasperated by the constant refrain of, “I’ll never use this (Algebra) again. Why should I have to learn it?

Now believe me, there was a time that I would have joined the ranks of complainers, because math was not, and has never been my strong suit. Today however, I’ve changed my mind about this age old gripe, realizing it wasn’t about math at all. With new eyes I looked at my math-computer friend and answered, “You were simply trying to teach him how to think–how to use steps to problem solve.”

And that, in my humble opinion, is the essential purpose of educating young people in all disciplines.

I spent over half of my career, before retirement, teaching AP US History, and Sophomore Honors History. This accelerated teaching assignment changed my approach and my philosophy of education almost at once. Rather than listing a fountain of facts to little test takers, I instead became a trainer of thinkers.

Embracing a new sense of purpose, classroom instruction no longer meant listing chronologies of events and dates, (though these have a place in coursework) but on how to synthesis those facts into a broader, deeper, meaning. Students were required to sort through diverse pieces of information, measuring facts into a larger coherent idea, a political viewpoint, an economic trend, or an emerging social movement. Let me illustrate.

In a simple compare/contrast question the kids had to examine the expansionist policies of Presidents Thomas Jefferson, and James K. Polk. Jefferson doubled the size of America in 1803, while Polk stretched the nation to the Pacific coast by 1848.

With a line down the middle of a piece of paper, students listed every fact concerning both presidential policies. Next they examined those facts: Louisiana Purchase through a treaty with France . . . Lewis and Clark Expedition . . . War with Mexico . . . land acquisitions of the Mexican Cession . . . opening of California, the Oregon Territory, etc . . . With all that listing and sorting of facts, the students drew conclusions from the historic record.

If done properly learners were able to make some solid observations regarding Jefferson’s diplomacy in his negotiated French real estate deal, versus Polk’s use of military force with Mexico. In this exercise students also developed a competent writing style, finding a distinctive voice while crafting conclusions; a literary flair.

Eventually, kids would find both presidents wanted the same thing—western land. But they realized Jefferson’s approach was more peaceful, or more principled, and France was too powerful to provoke, while later President Polk cast aside negotiations, opting for war against a weaker foe, (or something like that).

The art of teaching critical thinking, and expository writing takes lots of discipline, dedication and tons of practice. And to be honest, some kids simply weren’t willing to take that risk, resistant to that advanced coursework. Some parents balked, believing that teachers shouldn’t ask so much of their young ones, and GPA’s were too valuable to imperil with such a tough class. I understood the hesitation; critical thinking takes a bit acquire.

And I, too, often worried and stewed over my students’ progress, often perceiving poor performance as a personal failure. I sometimes considered lowering my standards so everyone would get an “A,” and I would be their favorite teacher. 

There were many tears throughout the school year, a fair share of grumbling, and resentment to the rigor. Still, by June the majority of my students had persevered, becoming accomplished independent thinkers. They had bravely risked a relentless “boot camp” curriculum, and prevailed.

To drive home their achievements, I’d ask the kids to read some of their first essays from fall quarter, and compare the writing to more recent pieces. They were pretty proud of themselves, satisfied they could take on the world. From the beginning of the year to the end, these students never realized how accomplished they could, and eventually did become.

The point is that, we, as teachers, and also as parents, must expect more from our kids beyond showing up to class, and staying awake. Young people must stretch themselves to reach those aspirations. Frankly, if we expect nothing from our students, that is what we’ll get, nothing.

As one student later confessed, “I learned my education is my responsibility.”

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January and River of January: Figure Eight. Both books available on Kindle. Chumbley has also authored the stage play, “Clay,” and “Wolf By The Ears.”


A New April


Right now, in classrooms across America, and overseas, thousands 17-year-olds are preparing for the AP US History exam. They, and their instructors are obsessed with cause and effect, analyzing, and determining the impact of events on the course of America’s story.  Moreover, they are crazed beyond their usual teen-angst, buried deep in prep books, on-line quizzes, and flashcards. As a recovering AP teacher, myself, I can admit that I was as nuts as my students, my thin lank hair shot upward from constant fussing.

My hair fell out too, embedding in combs and brushes, as I speculated on essay prompts, that one ringer multiple choice question, and wracking my brains for review strategies. The only significance the month of April held was driving intensity, drilling kids on historic dates; Lexington and Concord, the firing on Fort Sumter, the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, President Wilson’s Declaration of War in 1917, the battle of Okinawa, MLK’s murder, and the Oklahoma City bombing, That was what April meant in April.

To quote John Lennon, “and now my life has changed, in oh so many ways.”  Today April holds a whole new definition. My husband rises first in the morning, putters in the kitchen, fetches coffee, tends to the dog, and is back in bed, back to sleep. Big plans for my morning include writing this blog, making some calls related to book talks, a three mile walk through the Idaho mountains, then working on Figure Eight, the second installment of River of January. What a difference!  Nowadays, getting manic and crazy is optional. My hair has grown back in, standing up only in the morning, and the only brush with AP US History occurs in my dreams; the responsibility passed on into other capable hands.

This month, at least here in the high country, has been especially beautiful. We have already enjoyed a few 70 plus degree days, and the green is returning to the flora. Our sweet deer neighbors are no longer a mangy grey, emerging from the trees wearing a warm honey coat. With a little snow still on the peaks, the sky an ultra blue, and the pines deep green and rugged, I think sometimes this must be Eden.

My years as a possessed, percolating history instructor provided a gift of passionate purpose that enriched me more than depleted.  But, now . . . I wouldn’t trade this new phase of my life for all the historic dates in April.

Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January also available on Kindle.