I came up with this in a Field Study course in which I took at group of students to NYC to study unions and workers centers. The students had no experience of unionism, so we needed to come up with a working definition of "union" so that we had a common basis for discussion. (As opposed to me just explaining what a union is, or given them someone else's definition. - What's wrong with explaining? Read on.) This activity gave us a great starting point for our discussion and it captured something essential about unionism and any social movement: the need to constantly reinvent and reimagine.
What is a “UNION”?
- Joker explains and motivates: to start a discussion of unions so that we can begin thinking about what we want to learn from the unions and workers centers we will visit
- PREP: everyone takes six blank small index cards. Joker asks participants draw six faces, one per card, each one different. Encourage them to feel free: to think about age, gender, race, personality, etc.
- Now, in group(s) of about six, people place their cards in the middle of the table, mix them up, and then arrange the cards to show their, group, definition of "a union."
- When they are finished, the joker asks questions: who is this? who are they? what is their position? why are they in that place? Why are these people in and these out? -- the idea is to get the participants to fully articulate their ideas, explaining the placement of each card and the relationships between them. The goal is to understand the idea of "union" that they have created, its assumptions and key elements.
- Joker then asks the group to name the principles of unionism in their "chart."
- Discussion can asking people if they have ever seen such an organization, or participated in an organization like this. They can then be asked to describe those experiences, what was useful or valuable in those groups, what was not.
- The joker can also ask people to make a list of questions they have about unions, based on the chart.
Note: People should feel free to rearrange the cards as they discuss the arrangement, but the joker must be careful not to be perceived to be urging them to do so. This is a crucial facilitation point: the joker's role is only to understand and verify her/his understanding.
Norma Rae's union and ours
- Joker shows 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.
- Same activity, but asking people to show their understanding of a cooperative. (Make it more specific if that seems useful: workers cooperative, consumers cooperative, credit union etc.)
- You can follow this up with the game Co-opoly (Tool Box for Education and Social Action.)
See also "The Electrician's Beans."
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 the organizations visited, to see if everyone understands the structure of the organizations and how they interpret them. (Democratic, top-down, etc.)
What is a Cooperative?