Graphic novel helps kids learn about labor history

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One of the lessons of history is that it must be retaught so our children won't repeat it. One of those lessons is the cruelty of child labor. Few people know it was considered a "rite of passage" for young immigrants working in clothing factories a century ago to run their fingers through with the needle of a sewing machine.

Maybe your students think the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City's garment district could never happen again—or, more likely, they've never even heard of that fire, which killed almost 150 workers, mostly young immigrant women and girls, because the doors of the factory were locked. Many Americans believe child labor is a thing of the past.

Leslie Tolf

It's a tough lesson to teach and a tough one to learn, but help is here in the form of a new graphic novel that's well-suited to middle school students. When the Rules Aren't Right: 7 Time Travel Tales of Activism is the story of Emma, a typical teenager tired of her family and her chores. She knows little of the wider world and nothing of the hard-won gains that enabled kids to go to school instead of having to work in dangerous jobs.

AFT President Randi Weingarten and Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker took time on March 17 to endorse this book by Leslie Tolf, a longtime union activist and former president of Union Plus, where she established a scholarship fund for children and a home loan assistance program for their families.

Speaking about the book at an AFT luncheon honoring female activists for Women's History Month, Weingarten said we need to remember what it took to secure women's rights and what it will take to protect them.

"These struggles are no longer just part of days gone by," Weingarten said. Describing the Trump administration's budget proposal that "cuts every program you care about," she outlined a conservative agenda "the likes of which we haven't seen since Ronald Reagan." This fight will stretch into the next generation, she added, saying that's why students need to learn labor history: "It's all part of the parable, part of the lesson that Leslie is teaching us in this book."

Weingarten introduced Neidi Dominguez, an activist and program director at the AFL-CIO who came to the United States from Mexico at age 9. Last year, Dominguez helped lead a coalition in Phoenix that ousted Sheriff Joe Arpaio after his 24 years of terrorizing immigrants in that city. She also helped organize car wash workers in Los Angeles, and has been a key player in the immigrant youth movement.

Dominguez said she and her mother want to translate the book into Spanish. Since she was 10, "meetings and rallies were my playground, and fliers were my coloring books." Now she's carrying forward that activism. "Women have to constantly be breaking the rules and making new rules," she said, "because if we play by the rules, nothing will ever change."

Weingarten noted that the AFT's free Share My Lesson website offers a lesson plan using Tolf's novel, plus support materials and activities to introduce students to key events in labor history. It helps students identify causes they care about, and guides them to think strategically about creating their own protest signs and making their voices heard.

Tolf said her goal is to get a thousand educators to read her book and 100,000 kids to use it. Although only 1 in 10 of today's children is growing up in a union household, she observed, they're coming of age in a politically active time. So she's asking AFT members to read the book, give a copy to a favorite child and discuss with young people how unions make people's lives better.

Find out more about the book and contact the author.

[Annette Licitra/photo by Pam Wolfe]