Teaching Profession

L.A. Project Puts Students At Bargaining Table

By Julie Blair — September 24, 2003 4 min read
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Concern over students’ ignorance about the history and importance of unionism brought United Teachers of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District to the same table five years ago to provide high school courses on the subject. Now, the effort is gaining a national reputation and is being replicated elsewhere.

The Collective Bargaining Education Project pairs students with more than 200 real-life union and management arbitrators, who guide them through mock negotiating sessions. The aim is to make students more aware of organized labor and its role in capitalism, past and present, said social studies teacher Linda Tubach, who coordinates the effort along with her colleague Patty Litwin, also a social studies instructor.

While many unions have created curriculum materials over the years for K-12 schools, this is believed to be one of the few instances in which labor leaders have crafted and disseminated the information themselves, said John See, a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers, a parent organization of UTLA. The local union is also affiliated with the National Education Association.

“The AFL-CIO’s latest research shows that more than half of Americans no longer know what a union even is,” Ms. Tubach said. “We’re trying to reverse that trend.”

More than 3,000 students in Los Angeles have participated in the project since 1998, she said, and they have been overwhelmingly enthusiastic.

“A lot of them say it is the best experience they’ve had in high school,” Ms. Tubach said. “The content here is also very compelling. About 80 percent [of students in the district] ... already have a job by the time they graduate, so workplace issues are very important to them.”

Critics, however, worry that Ms. Tubach and Ms. Litwin don’t present objective information about “big labor.”

“I’d be willing to bet that those union officials only want to get their side out,” said David P. Kendrick, the director of the organized-labor accountability project at the National Legal and Policy Center, a union watchdog organization based in Falls Church, Va.

Ms. Tubach disputed such arguments. She pointed out that management teams are present to help students understand their side of the issues in the mock bargaining sessions. Moreover, students make the final decisions, and management often receives a sweeter deal than the workers do.

Experiential Learning

The labor project grew out of a recognition that many students don’t come from union families and have had little exposure to organized labor, Ms. Tubach said. Furthermore, educators don’t spend much class time on the labor movement, despite its influential role in American history.

“We’re helping to fill a gap in social studies education,” Ms. Tubach said.

The week-long Collective Bargaining Education Project evolved out of one-day mock negotiation forums started in 1991 sponsored by area unions and trade centers, Ms. Tubach said. Five years ago, those sessions were complemented by weeklong courses.

The Los Angeles district allowed the two teachers release time to coordinate the project while it continued to pay their full salaries. Ms. Tubach and Ms. Litwin have offices in UTLA headquarters, though they spend a large part of their time skipping from classroom to classroom.

“As far as experiential learning goes, it really is a wonderful tool,” said Bud Jacobs, the director of high school programs for the 740,000-student district.

Both the one-day and weeklong sessions begin with an overview of the labor movement. Students are divided into teams, with some playing the role of workers, and others acting as managers. The participants must work on drafting a contract, often from scenarios based on famous strikes from labor history. The teams write position papers, use math to figure out percentages and pay raises, and hone rhetorical arguments to convince teammates and opponents of their positions.

“I think it is fabulous,” said Kary Harger, who teaches U.S. history at Carson High School and has participated for five years.

“We tend to teach history top-down—we look at dead, white guys,” she said, noting that many of her students are from minority, working-class families. “We skip over what people like them were doing and what their lives would have been like.”

Still, some union critics such as Mr. Kendrick are concerned that the union’s agenda is to recruit future members without telling students about the problems some critics believe unions have caused.

“Any curriculum in public school should emphasize all aspects” of a subject, he said.

Advocates, however, said the union program balances material outlined in textbooks, which tend to emphasize management’s perspective. And management is represented by the arbitrators to articulate their side of the story.

News of the collective bargaining project has spread around the country, as the program has garnered national accolades.

Already, the project has been transplanted to the 95,500-student Prince George’s County, Md., school district outside Washington, Ms. Tubach said. Twenty other cities have contacted her asking for the program.

“The future of the labor movement is in high schools,” the teacher said. “And middle schools are the next frontier.”

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