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Lesson Plan Labor Unions and Working Conditions: United We Stand

Think about your work environment…are you allowed to rest periodically? Do you earn a decent wage? Can you voice your concerns without losing your job? There was a time when workers in the United States did not have basic rights such as a minimum wage or time for a break.

Work with primary source documents from the Library of Congress online collections to study the working conditions of U.S. laborers at the turn of the century. Answer the question, "Was there a need for organized labor unions?"


Students will be able to:

  • analyze and discuss the significance of primary source documents;
  • describe the working conditions in the United States at the turn of the twentieth century that gave rise to the labor union movement;
  • understand the justification for organized labor unions; and
  • present their justification by using primary sources from the Library of Congress to defend their arguments.

Time Required

Three classes

Lesson Preparation

Print out primary sources from the Resource Gallery and post items around the classroom or direct students to the Resource Gallery. Remember to print out all pages of the sheet music. Read definitions of primary and secondary sources in Using Primary Sources and discuss with students as necessary.



Lesson Procedure

  1. Allow students to examine the primary sources, posted in the room or in the online Resource Gallery, for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Ask students to share their observations, answering the question, "What did you see?"
  3. Use Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. factory no. 12, Clarksburg, West Virginia. Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co. factory interior VII to demonstrate analysis of primary sources to the students.
  4. Students analyze the photograph, recording their thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
  5. Discuss the significant themes found in the pictures. Ask students to share their conclusions from their analysis worksheet.
  6. In small groups, students create a poster that portrays a specific issue of turn-of-the-century laborers' working conditions.
  7. Groups also, create a newspaper editorial on the same topic as the poster.
    The editorial must refer to at least three specific images introduced in the lesson.
    The images can be used as if they are "eyewitness" shots or "sightings".
    The editorial concludes with an analysis of what changes should be made in working conditions and how those changes are to be made. The editorial may be a written, oral or video presentation.


Create a mock trial based on the Pullman Strike, Haymarket Riot, or another notable labor incident. Working in small groups, students participate in a mock trial to identify who is to blame for a labor riot that has occurred.

  1. Recruit the principal or another social studies teacher to serve as the trial judge.
  2. Divide the students into groups of six. Assign the following roles to the six students in each group:
    attorney against labor unions
    witness against labor unions
    factory owner
    attorney for labor unions
    witness for labor unions
    factory worker
  3. Working within their groups, each student prepares a written argument supporting his or her role. Students may discuss supporting issues with their peers. For example, students taking roles against the labor unions may discuss issues with partner students taking roles for the labor unions.
  4. Students search the Library's online collections for primary sources to defend their arguments.
  5. Student groups stage and videotape their mock trials.

Lesson Evaluation

Evaluate student analysis of the primary sources and the completed analysis tools by observation. Evaluate the posters and newspaper editorials according to criteria you specify or generate in collaboration with the class.


Nancy Woodward and Trish Shoemaker, American Memory Fellows 2000