For union and social movement activists, resistance is one of the highest virtues. We all carry around in our minds some favorite image of resistance: workers on a picket line, plan occupations, Norma Rae standing up with the "union" sign, the little fishes getting together to chase away the big fish, etc. We put the images on t-shirts, mugs, buttons, posters. Given our affection for resistance, it is easy to forget that resistance is also difficult, divisive, stubborn, uncooperative, backward, ornery, un-productive, wrong-headed, that is to say, resistant. But it is this type of resistance that may have the most to offer.

My thoughts about resistance have many sources, but the resistance of Ramona, brought the issues into focus.

The Bad Student

Ramona was in her late 50's or 60's, short, stocky, with grey hair and smoky plastic large-frame eyeglasses with temples that drop down, then rise up again over the ear, as if to provide an opening for peripheral vision. She was the catalyst for some of my most important experiences of popular education: my firing from the Consortium for Worker Education, my subsequent volunteer work with the Latino Workers Center, and my later work at the Association for Union Democracy. Ramona helped me get started on my first real experience of popular education as a language teacher. (I had experienced popular education as a worker, when my fellow teachers and I formed a union, using a mixture of participatory learning techniques and organizing tools.)

Ramona was a home attendant, like most of the students in the English as a Second Language class I was teaching for the Consortium for Worker Education (CWE) at a high school in Washington Heights, NYC. Like most of the students, she was from the Dominican Republic and had lived and worked in the United States for several years. And, like most of her coworkers, she was very angry about the way her managers abused her, and the union representatives failed to represent her. Ramona and her coworkers were members of Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU), Local 153.

When I met Ramona I was already a would-be popular educator. I had studied popular education both on the job at the CWE and in a working group I formed with other teachers and union and workers center activists (see Activity 1.4 The Working Group). I was also one of the leaders of my small but feisty teachers union chapter. I spoke Spanish and lived in Inwood, at that time a mostly Dominican neighborhood just north of Washington Heights. Some of my friends were social movement activists from the Dominican Republic, including longtime union activists and leaders of the anti-IMF struggles of the 1980s. I had been a labor activist since my days as a graduate student at the New School for Social Research, where I helped form a group called The Student-Worker Solidarity Committee, and I was convinced of the need for radical, bottom-up, reform in the US workers movement.

By traditional English class standards, Ramona was a "bad" student. Of course, as a popular educator I was opposed to traditional teaching approaches and recognized the democratic potential of "bad" behavior. But, as a teacher, I was also frustrated by her actions in the classroom.

She always came late. She sat in back of the classroom, the zone Ira Schor calls "Siberia” (his book When Students Have Power describes the dynamic of "bad" students very nicely), far enough from me to have space to get down to business: talking with her fellow workers in Spanish.

This was a problem for me. As an ESL teacher interested in popular education, I was looking for a Nina Wallerstein - type experience. (Wallerstein wrote my favorite book about problem-posing education, Language and Culture in Conflict, based on her work as an ESL teacher in immigrant communities in California. That book was the closest thing I had to a model of how popular education might look in the context of ESL teaching.) Through dialogue and participatory activities, I hoped to find in this ESL class the generative themes that might lead to real problem-posing.

But the starting point was English; I had to get people talking in English in order for anything to progress. And Ramona was back there talking away, in Spanish.

She had all the resistance skills students develop: she'd keep her eye on me as she talked with her friends, watching me move around, ready to look my way attentively if she thought I was checking on her. She'd lower her voice if she thought I was close to asking her to be quiet. But, even in those moments, she often continued to talk quietly, ready to get the conversation back in full gear. What was she resisting?

Like a devil on my shoulder, the traditional teacher in me (the teacher feeling pressure to "teach") would ask, "Why does she come to this class? Why doesn't she even try to use English? What is she doing here?!" At the same time, Ramona presented an intriguing challenge to my devil: how to "get through" to her. If only I were a better teacher I could get her to stop.

The popular education "angel" on my other shoulder sensed something more at play: her fellow students didn't get impatient with her, it seemed they respected her and paid attention to what she was saying. "What is it that is so important? What is going on? What is she doing here? She is participating, but what is that participation about?" Here was someone determined to connect with her fellow students -- how to get into that dialogue and bring it into English?

The class had only been running for a couple of weeks, so my fishing for generative themes -- asking questions about family, community, work, etc. -- was not advanced. I was still just getting to know people and learn about their lives and experiences. I was not familiar with the world of Home Health Care Attendants, nor with their union, the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU).

One day, when Ramona seemed particularly determined to talk things over with her classmates back in Siberia, I took a page out of Ira Shor's book and moved the focal point of the class to her. I moved to the back of the room near Ramona, and encouraged her to explain the issues in English. If she couldn't explain them in English, then, I said, we would all act them out together. Ramona could narrate and we all would act. (See Acting it Out and Cuento Vivo).

It worked. Aided by her coworkers Ramona told the story, in a mix of English and Spanish, and they all acted it out as she talked. I was the person who knew the least about the context (of course), so I asked a lot of questions to clarify the story. (It also served my purposes in terms of English conversation practice.)

Ramona explained the problem she was having at work. She was having trouble getting enough hours to make a living, while the manager was sending out newer, younger, and lower paid, workers in her place. Many people in the class shared this problem.

The turning point came when I asked Ramona, "what do you do when you have this problem?" Ramona played out a phone call to the union representative (played by another student). I won't try to reproduce the language she used, I've forgotten by now, but the content went more or less as follows:

{phone rings}

Ramona: "Hello, Victoria?"

Victoria: "Yes." ("She knows how to speak Spanish," the workers pointed out, "but she only speaks to us in English!")

Ramona: "I have a problem. Miss Washington won't give me any work, but she is giving hours to the young girls. It's not fair. I don't get enough hours to live."

Victoria: "Okay, don't do anything, let me call Miss Washington. I will call you back."


Victoria: "Ramona? I called Miss Washington. Everything is fine. She is right about the hours. We can't make a complaint. There is nothing we can do."

{End of call.}

Generative theme, anyone?!

I was energized -- here was a live issue that affected nearly everyone in the class, a real knot of problems that was at the center of people's lives as immigrant workers. I was new to their work and union, but as a union activist with a reform orientation the basic issue was familiar and important to me: one of the problems of US unions has been the weakness of shop-floor representation, a problem that especially affects non-English speaking workers.

(You can see here how the context in which education takes place -- the fact that the class was full of workers from one employer, with shared problems, that it took place in their community, in a neutral space, with a teacher interested in popular education and union reform -- made the moment possible.)

I had lots of ideas about how to use this theme: we would explore Ramona's problem, not just that call or her particular case, but the underlying problem that they shared. I had some good ESL materials in the form of English for Action, a problem-posing curriculum by Wallerstein and Auerbach and I had my own union experience to draw on. This was a dialogue to which everyone had a lot to bring.

Where to go next? It was clear that people were not aware of their their contract and what it contained; we could get the contract, and read it together. We could do the same with the local union bylaws. We could use a problem tree to analyze the problems and their roots. We could do participatory research to find and assess resources. We could use role plays to practice action and the English needed. Both on the technical side and the content side, the possibilities were flowing. It all started with Ramona being "bad." Resistance is fertile.

(I later found out that the class itself was a product of the home attendants' activism -- the same people who were unhappy with the employer's abuses and the union's weak response had pressured the union to hold an English class in Washington Heights.)

In the following classes, the students and I talked about what a union is, and how to get a copy of the union contract and constitution. They brought up other problems, like the fact that they had to pay a fee to get their paychecks (which is of course illegal). We determined it made sense for me, as teacher, to ask the union representative (the same Victoria they had complained about) for a copy of the documents to use in the English class, which was, after all, sponsored by the union. (My asking also protected individuals from any unwanted attention.)

I wrote a friendly memo to Victoria explaining how this would be useful for English learning and cited the chapters in ESL for Action which have activities related to reading the union contract. In conversations with Victoria before the class started I had already identified ESL for Action as a text I would use. (ESL for Action makes it seem like studying the contract in a union-sponsored English class is standard worker education practice, but I knew I was reaching -- in my experience, union staff are often reluctant to share those documents with members.)

Nothing doing. I got a memo back saying in effect my job was to teach English, the union would teach its members about their rights. (Or not teach them, as in this case.)

This reaction increased students' interest in the contract and union constitution. I didn't need to tell people it was important to have the contract -- the fact that it was a banned subject said enough. We brainstormed other ways to get their contract and constitution and, in the meantime, continued with other good union-related activities in ESL for Action.

Bad Teacher
My request also brought me a class visit from the union representative. One evening, accompanied by my manager from the Consortium for Worker Education, Victoria came to observe me at work and make contact with the students. As the two of them moved through the classroom, chatting with students, handing out new three ring binders with the union label pasted on the front, and looking at the materials I ha prepared for the lesson, one of the students slipped a copy of the union contract from her bag and passed it to me, literally behind the union rep's back. I put it in my bag. We would later go over parts of it in class, starting with the language on how hours are assigned.

Why did I ignore the union rep's request that I "just teach English"? What was I resisting? I could justify my behavior on the grounds that teaching English means dialogue about our lives and the issues that concern us and this clearly was such an issue. I was "teaching English", doing my job. I could also stand on the fact that our teachers union chapter, of which I was one of the chapter leaders at that time, had won Academic Freedom language in our contract. Moreover, the union representative was not my manager or boss. I felt no obligation to follow her advice about how to teach. But, the real reason, of course, was that I couldn't imagine dropping the generative theme Ramona had revealed for us. The union rep's resistance only confirmed that we were onto something, something important to explore. Was I out of line? Of course. As the Wobbly poet T-Bone Slim wrote, "insubordination is the silver lining in the cloud of obedience."

The course soon ended and, under pressure from OPEIU, the CWE reassigned me to teach nurses in a hospital on the other side of New York City, in a program run by SEIU 1199. I kept in touch with the home attendants, though. Using contact information I gave them, they had joined an immigrant workers center, The Latino Workers Center (LWC), where friends of mine worked. With the LWC's help, the workers, including many of my former students, started a rank-and-file committee: Trabajadoras Unidas to fight for change in their union. They invited me to their meetings and I facilitated a couple of workshops for their core activists, one on "What is a union?" another on alternative strategies (using the problem tree format -- see Activity 3.1 The Problem Tree). The popular education process continued, but my role had changed from teacher to supporter (the term they used was "asesorando" -- this shift in roles as the education process moves to action is described more in Activity 6.4 Crossing the Line).

One morning, the workers held a protest in front of the company office. Because some workers had made signs and walked in a circle the employer claimed the workers were picketing in violation of their contract's very detailed "no strike" clause (a clause I wish we had studied in class). The employer fired several key activists and the struggle was side-tracked into a dead-end campaign to defend the fired workers. The grievance machinery began its slow grind, the union chose to handle each case separately.

There is more to the story, but those familiar with US unions may already be able to guess how it ended. Time dragged by. The home attendants charged with picketing in violation of the no-strike clause eventually lost their grievances and NLRB charges (at least one settled and returned to work, I think). The reform movement was suppressed.

In the meantime, OPEIU's International President demanded that the Consortium for Worker Education fire me for "interference in internal union affairs." The CWE, which risked losing a member union, obliged. Long story short: I grieved it, filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge, went to arbitration. Our little teachers union chapter put up a good fight -- protests, petitions, etc. But we lost.

The moral of the story is...?

When I tell this story, and get to this point, I think to myself, "this doesn't exactly make popular education in the labor movement sound very appealing." The workers were defeated, I got fired. The moral of the story seems to be that trying to practice popular education in a union context is a good way to get into trouble, but not a great way to get out. Of course, as long as "popular education" is just a question of using participatory techniques and talking about generative themes in the classroom, you are safe, but when the problems workers pose involve the union and they start talking about doing something about it, maybe it's better to switch to safer topics. Keep it in the classroom, don't cross the line from discussion to action. Isn't that the lesson?

I don't think so. What I learned was that popular education in the context of a union-sponsored ESL class was possible, that it was vital and exciting, that an educator could find generative themes that organically linked English learning/teaching and organizing for change. I learned that popular education depends more on the participants and their activity than on the educator, but that the educator can play a key role by opening up the dialogue and helping people get new information. I learned that it was possible to stick with a popular education process as it moved from the classroom to the activist meeting. I learned about the limits to popular education in the context of union-sponsored worker education programs and I learned just how fertile resistance can be and how important "bad" students can be to good teaching.

[what did the workers learn?]

Of course, if the union leadership of OPEIU 153 had responded constructively to the resistance they were getting from the home attendants, seeing it for the organizing opportunity it was, instead of as a threat to their power -- the story might have ended very differently.

This story may seem strange to readers unfamiliar with the union movement today. Why would unions be against workers organizing to fight the boss? Why would unions discourage the use of education to facilitate democracy and workers power? Aren't unions in favor of popular education?

In fact, many labor education programs define their work as popular education, both in unions and in university-based programs (see Teaching for Change). The Consortium for Worker Education hired popular educators to teach me and my coworkers about the methods and techniques and how to use them (we used those lessons to help form our teachers union) and I was encouraged to teach other teachers about popular education. There are many great educators working in such programs, seeking opportunities to push the envelope.

But, all of them know that practicing popular education in the union movement can be risky. Popular education can be "dangerous" in the eyes of those with power, not the ideas of popular education (managers love "empowerment"), not the teaching methods (please, more group work!), but the threat that popular education might become actual, that workers might raise real issues of power and control on the job and in the union and move toward action. Suddenly the barriers to popular education spring up.

This is why I am so grateful to have had the chance to continue my education work at the Association for Union Democracy, a setting where I could freely pursue the links between education and organizing. This book represents the product of that labor, but it started back with Ramona and her coworkers.

[some themes: popular education as developing capacity for collective action (Sam Gindin), but not just action in the narrow sense, also collective thought, collective exploration, collective strategizing, collective decision-making the full range of activity including control at all levels. So, the watered down "popular education" that is just participatory activities plus mobilization by organizers, or participatory activities as a means to mobilization by organizers is a huge departure from popular education, or, to be less defensive about the term "popular education," it is an anti-democratic and top-down form of education...]