In an effort to learn more about labor history and labor issues, we’re lucky to have two guest speakers (and experts) come to our classes. In the first day, we had a discussion on what students knew about unions, what they did and what some of the challenges to unions are. We began with this video.
Some of the things we addressed were:
- Importance of understanding the historical and present day workplace and the lack of 1st Amendment protections:. “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
- How legislation affecting work affects us in different ways depending on where we are in the economic/class spectrum – hourly workers, professionals, supervisors, employers.
We also brainstormed responses to some real-life scenarios, like:
- Being forced to stay for an extra shift, being asked to work holidays without holiday pay, being asked to work nights beyond teen work hours… When do you stand up and say no, or do you just do it because its a job and a paycheck?
- Do you ever mention the word ‘union’ to your boss in a non-union job?
- What if you notice there are unsafe working conditions in your job, (food service) or that things change or get cleaner once there’s a health inspection (OSHA visit)? Do you speak up? Do you report them? Or is that not worth losing your job?
- Would you rather walk away from a job rather than change it? When do you draw the line? Do you think about the other workers that your issue may address?
We also used PollEverywhere to get instant student feedback on a couple of issues. On the second day, we used this format (below) for a negotiations role-play. Students had to assume the following roles:
- You are a company spy and agitator. Your job is to create divisions within the group and get people not to like each other and to argue and fight amongst each other.
- You love the employer and think they can do no wrong and if they have to cut your hours, take away vacations, and make us pay more for health insurance than we have to accept it.
- You are so mad because of what the company wants to do that you are “spitting nails”. You want action and think that anyone who doesn’t want to walk out of work or take other drastic action RIGHT AWAY is a wimp and a coward.
- You are really worried that other workers will want you to walk off the job in protest and you can’t afford to lose pay because you need that paycheck.
- You hate what the company is trying to do to people but you are worried that if workers act to quickly and don’t think about it more and get more reaction and discussion from co-workers they will make a mistake or fall into a company trap.
- You can create your own role.
Different classes had different results, but all of the students realized that their strength lay in numbers and unity. In some occasions, the union went into negotiations split, and management pounced on the divisions. On other occasions, half of the union walked out of negotiations and the other half stayed. We learned pretty quick what kind of problems that would create. In all, many of the students tried to negotiate back from the brink – holding the line on some issues, but more willing to bargain on others. It turns out that most of the classes quickly dropped the issue of health care for new hires. The current workforce of students did not see that as a major issue to fight with management on – but they learned a harsh lesson. It turns out that they actually was the only issue that our employer negotiators were interested in acquiring. The other issues concerning hour and vacation cuts were only side issues – and potential ‘icing on the cake’ if workers negotiated them. We discussed how often health care becomes a major issue for workers. In all, it was a great learning opportunity for students.
Students shared their feedback on the following form, and our guest speakers replied to the questions they asked on the link to the Google Doc spreadsheet below.
Click here to see the Gdoc spreadsheet for the anonymous comments, questions to our guest speakers, and their answers.
Looking back on the lesson, there are a couple of things I might have done differently, a couple of questions I would ask myself to think about, and a couple of ways that I would try to expand the learning for all of my students. Where to start? Differences. Ah, here’s where I make mistakes and love it. There’s always room for improvement and I’ve learned to become comfortable with that. I definitely would place the lesson in a deeper context concerning values and themes. When we learn about issues that have a direct application to so many ways in which people go about their daily lives, I think there’s got to be room to explore what it means within us – and what values it touches. Is it loyalty? Freedom? Equality? Self-respect? Truthfulness?
All of these different values help us guide the choices we make, as well as the choices of our ancestors before us.