In this activity people must show what they understand by "union" (labor union, trade union, workers center, etc.), using images of individual that they have created. The idea is to give people complete freedom to illustrate their understanding as a group of the term union -- sharing ideas and interpretations -- not to achieve a final definition but to initiate further exploration. Having people create the images of people helps frame the understanding of union in terms of individuals, people with different ideas, needs, experiences, etc. I created it for people who had no union experience at all -- so it was the first step in a discussion of unions and organizing. But in a time when the regeneration of worker organization is the top priority, a return to first steps seems like a useful thing.

Materials needed:
Index cards, pens or markers, camera to take picture of diagrams.

How many people?
Any number, break into groups if more than five people.

10 minutes for drawing, 15-30 minutes for creating the diagram, 30 minutes at least for description and discussion.

Small group around a table. Diagrams will be made on the table.


  • Everyone gets six small cards (half a large index card).
  • On each card, participants draw a person's face, making sure to have each face be different.
    Encourage people to think about age, gender, race, personality, mood -- feel free to draw different types of people.
  • When all the pictures are done, collect and shuffle the cards.
  • Then ask the participants, in groups of five or fewer, to arrange the cards on the desktop (or floor or whiteboard) to show what they understand by the term "union."
  • When they are done, compare the arrangements. Ask participants to describe what they see.
  • Let the patterns emerge from the description of the arrangements. Keep a parking lot of questions or differences of opinion or interpretation for later discussion.
  • Ask someone to summarize.

Watch for: the key to this activity is for the educator to ask people to describe exactly what they see, the more closely they describe what they have created the richer the discussion will be. People should feel free to offer interpretations, but the educator should challenge them to verify their ideas by reference to the diagram. It is important for the educator to note the different ideas and issues that emerge and to interrogate people to make sure the description is as thorough and specific as possible.

A next step might be to show a video clip of a union (maybe a scene from Matewan, Norma Rae, Silkwood, Blue Collar, Human Resources, etc.) and then have people diagram what they see in that film, using the cards. How does the diagram based on the video clip differ?

Or you could ask people to create dialogues or improvise discussions between individuals in the diagram they made.

For people who are already members of a union, you can ask them to diagram their own unions, or an ideal union, or a nightmare union...

This activity can also lead into the Visions of Unionism activity.

You can also preserve the diagram and add to it as people's understanding grows -- for example, changing the diagram to show management, or the courts or federal agencies, or community organizations, politicians, etc...

Norma Rae's union and ours

Show a scene from a film that shows a labor dispute (such as the scene in Norma Rae, where she stands up with a sign saying "STRIKE" and the workers shut down the machinery).
Ask the group to make a new chart, using the same cards (or making new ones) to show "the union" in the scene.
Add missing figures if necessary (boss, police, national guard...)
Add other institutional elements (contract, court, jail, bank, apartment - rent)
Reflect on the image, how is it the same/different from the "union" you created before?
Show more of the film, to add complexity, and adjust the image to show new features.
All of this can then form the basis for analyzing existing unions or workers centers. You can also use the cards to create "charts" for different organizations, to see if everyone shares the same understanding of the organizations. (Democratic, top-down, etc.)