College & Workforce Readiness

These Shop Teachers Told Their Students to Form a Union

High school teachers simulate labor organizing in the classroom
By Madeline Will — November 12, 2019 9 min read
Students clean airplane parts in a class at Aviation High School in Queens, N.Y. The class prepares students for careers in aviation, while also simulating a union shop.
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Queens, N.Y.

Under the supervision of two foremen, workers clad in white coveralls use a sandblaster and other power tools to remove corrosion from airplane parts.

A sign posted nearby in all capital letters reads, “This is a union shop.” Workers, the sign says, have the right to file a grievance if they have suffered a hardship or feel like they haven’t been treated fairly.

But this isn’t a workplace. It’s a classroom—and the workers are high school sophomores.

Aviation High School, which is located in Long Island City but takes applicants from all five boroughs of New York, prepares students to have a career in aerospace. For about the past six years, teachers José Vaz and Antonio Pepenella have added an extra dose of realism by transforming their aircraft cleaning and maintenance classes into simulated unionized workplaces.

Now, Vaz and Pepenella say they’re more hands-off in their instruction, and students are able to take charge of their own learning experiences.

“Students at this age, and people in general, tend not to like to be told what to do, so now it comes from their peers, and they come up with their own ideas and their own resolutions,” Vaz said.

The experience also gives students a sense of what unions can do for workers, said Vaz, who is his school’s chapter leader for the New York City teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

Kwamel Robinson cleans an airplane part during his aviation cleaning and corrosion class at Aviation High School.

Students have the opportunity to graduate from Aviation High School as licensed aircraft maintenance technicians, and some go directly into the workforce, where they might join a union. (More than 70 percent of aircraft maintenance technicians or mechanics who work for an airline in the United States are represented by a union, according to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.)

In the past few years, there’s been a renewed focus on unions. A 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision dealt a blow to public-sector unions that many anticipated would lead to sustained membership losses. But last year, more workers went on strike or participated in a work stoppage than in any year since 1986, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—and many of those workers were teachers. A recent Gallup poll puts Americans’ approval rate of labor unions at 64 percent, the third-highest approval number since 1970. While union membership has been steadily declining for decades, the Gallup poll found that support for organized labor is strongest among people aged 18 to 34.

In Vaz and Pepenella’s classes, students elect officers, including foremen and a union representative, on the first day of class. Union representatives are in charge of enforcing the class contract and making sure students’ rights are protected. They’re also charged with mediating conflicts between their classmates.

“You speak for the class,” sophomore William Padilla said of his role as union representative. “If someone feels like something is unjust, they come to me.”

Concerns About Unions

Although unionization efforts in the real world can be controversial, Pepenella and Vaz said they’ve never experienced any pushback or concerns from parents about the simulation. After all, they say, it’s preparing students for a key part of the aviation workforce. Delta Air Lines is the only major airline whose aircraft mechanics are not represented by a union—and there have been several labor organizing efforts at the company over the years.

Of course, New York is a pro-union state, and this type of classroom exercise might not fly with parents in more conservative areas. Even so, Colin Sharkey, the executive director of the Association of American Educators, a non-union professional organization, said students might realize after going through this simulation that they don’t want to be members of a union when they enter the workforce.

“There are times when students might feel like that model of ‘we all must agree’ doesn’t fit what they’re looking for,” he said. “It’s a tradeoff: We might have increased power, but we can only use it in one direction.”

This type of immersive, course-long simulation of union participation is practically unheard of in high schools. The history of the labor movement is a standard part of most high school history curricula, but some experts say students tend to get a cursory overview that doesn’t go into detail about workers’ rights.

“You open up a high school history textbook, and there’s going to be one little chapter in there, usually 19th century, [where you] might get a story of one or two of the big labor issues,” said Steve Grossman, the associate director of DePaul University’s Labor Education Center and a former high school social studies teacher.

The DePaul center’s staff holds collective bargaining simulations at Chicago-area high schools, where students are divided into union workers and management. Over several hours, they bargain over issues in a traditional labor contract, including wages, health care, and sometimes even social media use.

Simulations give students a real-world understanding of workers’ rights and how labor unions operate, Grossman said.

“Just understanding what it means to have a voice—you learn the power that you get through that, but you also learn the limitations of that,” he said. “Kids experience that through roleplay: Nobody’s going to get everything they want. Having a voice at the table is just a voice at the table. You have to still work with others and find ways to compromise.”

Vaz and Pepenella say that although they might discuss some current events involving aviation unions with their students, teaching labor history and the theory of unionism is not the goal of the simulation. They’re more concerned with making sure students are engaged in class and feel heard.

“I have a voice in this school,” said Pepenella, who belongs to the UFT. “A lot of times, students are afraid to voice their opinions. And it really shouldn’t be like that.”

Students Speaking Out

Most shop classes in the school have student foremen, but only a couple other teachers ask students to choose a union representative. Some teachers feel uncomfortable with the concept, Pepenella said. But to him, it makes sense.

“If you have a contract, you need to have someone to enforce it,” he said.

For example, the student contract clearly states that there will be two quizzes and a final exam during the 21-day course. But one year, Vaz decided to give another quiz as a disciplinary tool for bad behavior. The union representative told him that a third quiz was in violation of their contract. Vaz conceded that it was.

As the course progresses, the student union representative also brings up issues that arise and negotiates solutions with the teachers. If multiple people have an issue with a class rule, “maybe there is something wrong,” Pepenella said. “We want to hear their voice, it really does matter.”

In years past, students have negotiated moving a test from a Friday to a Monday. They have gotten certain homework assignments waived in exchange for better class behavior. Typically, students are on their feet for the two-and-a-half-hour class period, to emulate the workplace, but one group of students won the right to sit.

These contract settlements reset at the start of every course.

“That makes them take ownership of their own class,” Vaz said. “It’s easy when somebody paves the road for you, but they are still students and they need to learn how to do it on their own.”

This fall, Jayden Alkins, a student union representative, negotiated with his teachers the amount of time students would have to do their assignments. Vaz said he’s since agreed to let students come in and complete work during their lunch period.

“We came to a consensus of what’s asking too much, and what’s asking too little,” Jayden said. “We have to come to a middle ground of what makes the teacher happy and what makes the students happy.”

Those negotiations have earned him the trust and respect of his peers. The sophomores in the class said they felt comfortable expressing their opinions and concerns about the course through their union representative.

“I feel like we can trust him because he’s the same age as us,” Jennifer Castro said of Jayden. “I feel like we can understand each other.”

Added Crishant Tejada: “He makes sure to keep Mr. Vaz in check.”

Union rep Jayden Alkins runs the class union meeting during José Vaz’s cleaning and corrosion class at Aviation High School in Queens, N.Y.

At the end of class one day this fall, it was time for a union meeting. Jayden stood at a podium as his peers circled around. He gave some reminders about an upcoming quiz and the due date for a homework assignment. Then he answered some questions from his classmates: Would the quiz be multiple choice? What time will class start on an upcoming half day?

“Any [more] questions, comments, or concerns?” Jayden asked. “Nothing? We’re all good?”

As the students trickled out of the classroom, the class’ student teacher, Sharanjit Purewal, called Jayden over. One student had brought in a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich, but food is not permitted in class.

“Why shouldn’t I penalize him, at least a little?” Purewal asked the union representative.

Jayden considered. “We do have to be here at 8 a.m.,” he said. “And food will help him pay attention and learn.”

Purewal laughed. “Good answer.”

Later, Purewal said that Jayden, a reserved 15-year-old, hadn’t initially wanted to be a union representative. But teachers encouraged Jayden to run for the position in order to push him out of his comfort zone.

And that seems to be working, said Purewal, who was a foreman when he was a student at Aviation High School: “He’s going to be a great leader.”

Resolving Conflict

In the unionized classroom, the student foremen are not protected by the union, because they’re the managers. That has led to some clashes between the student union representative and a foreman, Vaz said.

For example, when one student skipped class, the foreman wanted to administer a stern punishment to hold him accountable. But the union representative protected him, arguing that it was the student’s first offense and he’d had a lapse in judgment.

Ultimately, “they negotiated a better punishment for the student,” like coming to class early for the next week, Vaz said. “That’s making the punishment match the crime.”

Putting students in these leadership roles is a great opportunity for peer mediation, Pepenella said.

“When students are together for such a long period of time, disputes arise,” he said. “The union rep can defuse the situation.”

Of course, this kind of simulation might not give students a completely nuanced understanding of unions, said Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University and a frequent critic of teachers’ unions.

“I think it’s possible that they’ll walk away with an unrealistic or distorted view of what collective bargaining looks like in the real world,” he said, adding that the teachers might downplay the negatives.

Still, Moe said, this exercise might give students “a glimpse of what it means to speak with a collective voice and try to assert some power when you’re otherwise powerless—those kinds of things are worth doing.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Shop Students Get Lessons in Unionizing


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