By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
UTLA member Dean Wood.
The question, posed by social studies teacher Dean Wood to his 12th-graders at Drew Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles, draws mostly blank stares.
"It's a place where they treat workers bad. It's a place where people are overworked," one student ventures.
If this urban classroom is any indication, there is a great deal of work to be done when it comes to educating tomorrow's workforce — and the general public — about the importance of the labor movement and what it means to be part of a union. But Wood is up for the challenge.
He calls on another student, who informs her classmates that unions protect the rights of workers. Her teacher beams his approval before talking about union benefits, contracts, negotiations, mediation and arbitration — and last but not least, strikes. Everyone, it seems, knows what a strike is.
Students are then divided into groups of three and asked to create their own labor unions. They are told to choose workers from an industry that is both legal and moral. Then they must write slogans and mission statements for their unions and create a list of ten demands they would like met.
"Be creative, but keep your demands reasonable," Wood tells his students. "Working 20 hours a week for a $100,000 salary is not reasonable."
One group mulls over forming a union to represent students. Wood reminds them that students are unpaid and thus ineligible to join. A trio of girls who take dance class together decide to represent dancers. Another group opts to represent immigrant day laborers, explaining that this group is often taken advantage of.
"Do you know anybody in a union?" Wood asks. Most students shake their heads no and only a few raise their hands.
"Lots of people you know are in unions," says Wood. "I'm in the California Teachers Association and also a member of United Teachers Los Angeles. When you leave here, I want you to interview a family member or friend who belongs to an organized labor union. I want you to find out what union they belong to, what the union does for them, and why they joined a union."
After interviewing a union member, students must research the union their interviewee belongs to and write a paper that explains that union's history, goals and tactics.
"Find out how this union benefits the workers it represents," says Wood. "How does it get information to workers? What techniques does it use to gain leverage on behalf of the workers it represents? Have these techniques proven to be effective?"
Wood admits that he goes above and beyond the state standards when it comes to teaching his students about unionism. But he feels it's too relevant to just gloss over.
"It's an important subject, and I think they learn more from having to do a bit of basic research. It will help them in the future. They will learn about earning a fair salary, decent working conditions, and that if they join a labor union, someone is there to protect them."
Wood reveals that he has another ulterior motive: His students will report to the class on their findings and, in the process, learn about various career opportunities available to them after graduation.
"When I teach about unions, I'm honest and keep my own personal bias out of it," says Wood. "But when they ask questions, I explain about the good things my union does for me."