Labor History

Historical content: 
The New Deal and World War II
Historical skills: 
Background knowledge, Contextualization, Periodization



The following two documents about labor conflict and unions were produced over fifty years apart. Read the documents and determine the order in which the documents were most likely written. Then explain your answers using evidence from the documents and your knowledge of history.


Document A: An article titled "The Recent Strikes" about labor unrest among railroad workers responding to a 10% cut in wages during a time of economic recession.

Document B: Part of a statement describing the goal of a federal law dealing with union organizing.

Source text: 

Document A:

"In Baltimore, Reading, Scranton, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, Columbus, Cincinnati, Louisville, and many points in New York and New Jersey, the laws were set at defiance, the property of the various railway companies seized, injured, or destroyed, the civil authorities overpowered or overawed. . . . The governors of West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, acted with great promptness, but found the military organizations of their States, although very efficient for the suppression of any ordinary outbreak, unable to suppress what rapidly grew from a riot to an insurrection; and were compelled to invoke the aid of the United States government. To this the President at once responded to the extent of the forces at his command; and the presence of detachments of the regular army and navy hastily gathered from all quarters, and hurried to the points most seriously threatened." 

Document B:

"A better relationship between labor and management is the high purpose of this Act. By assuring the employees the right of collective bargaining it fosters the development of the employment contract on a sound and equitable basis. By providing an orderly procedure for determining who is entitled to represent the employees, it aims to remove one of the chief causes of wasteful economic strife. By preventing practices which tend to destroy the independence of labor, it seeks, for every worker within its scope, that freedom of choice and action which is justly his."

Document _____ was likely written first because ____________________________



Document _____  was likely written later because ____________________________




About the Assessment

Like Civil Rights Movement in Context, this assessment gauges students’ ability to contextualize two historical documents and place them in the correct chronological order. Document A is an article titled "The Recent Strikes" published in the North American Review in 1877. Document B is from Franklin Roosevelt's statement on the National Labor Relations Act  (Wagner Act) in 1935. The assessment draws on students' knowledge about the American labor movement but in a way that goes beyond the simple recall of facts and dates. Students must show that they have a broad understanding of how the labor movement changed over time and demonstrate the ability to use knowledge about the past to place the historical documents in context.

In this assessment, students who correctly contextualize the documents will see that Document A, which describes the President deploying troops to quell labor unrest, was likely written before Document B, which discusses gains made later in the labor movement, like collective bargaining and the notion of workers’ rights.