Written by Geoff Kelly, images taken by and used with permission from Lachlan Macrae
On May 1, 2023, the Humanities Truck parked itself on American University’s campus to support the pop-up exhibit “AUnion: Let’s Strike!” organized by the students of Professor Anna Kaplan’s course Introduction to Public History. “AUnion: Let’s Strike!” detailed the history of collective bargaining and labor activism at institutions of higher education, with special attention placed on the successful Fall 2022 strikes at AU that led to renegotiated contracts, higher pay, and better benefits for members of the university’s staff.
As a whole, the project wore many hats; what started as a simple exploration of the Fall 2022 staff strikes quickly evolved to be much more than that — the class explored questions of American University’s often ignored history of labor activism (and why exactly it was ignored), the political impact of unions and unionization in the United States (and how the government, in particular the Reagan Administration, has historically played a key role in minimizing this impact), and how individuals can contribute to this activism and impact (often in ways as simple as keeping up-to-date with local union activities).
“AUnion: Let’s Strike!” not only pushed the class to research more, but enticed the audience to do so as well. Through a public website (linked here), anyone with even a passing interest in the subject can explore all of the above topics and more, complete with videos, primary source documents, and questions for consideration; additional sections, such as “Intersectionality”, allows interested parties to explore even more specific subjects within the broader scope of collective bargaining, and includes direct links to organizations such as Pride At Work (who represent LGBTQ+ individuals active in the labor movement) for further information.
Despite the dour weather, and though many of them had never taken part in an activity quite like this before, they took to it naturally, putting the ideas that they had studied for the entire semester to work. The team successfully engaged the public not through giving speeches or instruction on the history of unions and labor activism, but through inviting them to participate in the exhibit itself — students were offered opportunities to leave an impact through chalking up the sidewalk with pro-union messages, making buttons from pre-made or self-created designs, or writing their thoughts on labor history and the importance of unions on a sheet of butcher paper hung on the side of the Truck.
Though only on the quad until the period came to an end, “AUnion: Let’s Strike!” proved an incredible way to wrap up the course and to provide hands-on experience in organization, design, and execution of a public history exhibit. If the class runs again come Spring 2024, only one question remains: what engaging pop-up will Introduction to Public History and the Humanities Truck bring to the quad next?