ERIC Identifier: ED392317
Publication Date: 1996-02-00
Author: Rosenblum, Susan
Source: National Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education Washington DC.
Union-Sponsored Workplace ESL Instruction. ERIC Digest.
Labor unions have historically been at the forefront of movements in the
United States to link education and work. Since the early 1900s, when unions
with large immigrant populations--such as the International Ladies' Garment
Workers' Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union in New York--began
offering night classes in English and citizenship, using teachers from the New
York City Board of Education and union staff, unions have operated educational
programs to meet workers' diverse needs. In 1994 the author interviewed several
providers of union-sponsored workplace English as a second language (ESL)
instructional programs. Based on these interviews and a review of current
literature, this digest explores the history of union-sponsored workplace ESL
instruction; discusses some models for program delivery; and briefly describes
curricula and program goals.
THE HISTORY OF UNION-SPONSORED ESL INSTRUCTION
In the early
1900s, in response to the demand for English classes from a growing immigrant
workforce, unions organized evening classes. Workers attended to become citizens
and to advocate for the eight-hour day, labor's right to strike, and laws
strengthening safety conditions in the workplace. While ESL was the core of the
programs, courses in public speaking, economics, literature, history, and civics
were also provided. These classes were integrated with the overall union agenda
of meeting the practical needs of members to know English so they could
participate in developing the union and protect themselves in the workplace.
Over the next sixty years, classes in citizenship, ESL, and technical skills
continued to be offered in union halls across the nation. Then, in the late
1970s and early 1980s, several factors including an increase in immigrant
population, a decline in manufacturing jobs, and a combination of new technology
and work restructuring brought a new urgency to union-sponsored worker
education. When dislocated workers from auto, steel, and other manufacturing
industries sought retraining under federally supported programs such as the Job
Training Partnership Act (JTPA) or Trade Adjustment Assistance Act (TAAA), their
teachers identified the need for basic skills instruction in reading, writing,
and math before workers could access technological training to qualify for
positions in the new, increasingly computerized workplace.
Workers with limited English proficiency now face a different barrier to
retraining and employment. They lack the language to access training. Even entry
level positions are demanding high-level English language and literacy skills;
in New York, union educators report that warehouse jobs require workers to read
and write English well for shipping and delivery work.
Many manufacturing companies have begun to shift to the "high performance
workplace"--where teamwork, problem solving, and full involvement of the
workforce are employed to improve the quality of work (Pratt, 1995). This means
that teaching language and basic skills is not enough; communication skills,
problem-solving skills, and knowledge of workplace organization for the high
performance workplace must also be taught.
UNION-SPONSORED PROGRAM MODELS
Like the majority of
workplace instructional programs, union-sponsored programs generally involve a
partnership of unions, businesses, and educational entities to provide the
services. Union consortia, joint union/employer-supported programs, and
individual union/company-funded programs are examples of three program-delivery
models forged from partnerships.
Several unions may unite to form a consortium to offer so-called "worker
education" programs to their members. These consortia provide ESL classes as
part of ongoing adult education programs linked to community development and
One such entity is the New York Consortium for Worker Education (CWE)
(Collins, Balmuth, & Jean, 1989). In 1985 the educational director of the
Teamsters Local 237 in New York City founded the CWE and organized New York
labor unions to lobby the state legislature to introduce line-item funding in
the state budget for worker education programs. Today, about 22 unions
participate in the CWE, serving over 10,000 union members and their families in
work-related basic skills, ESL, and skills training programs.
Sometimes the state or local AFL-CIO spearheads the instructional programs.
In California, the state with the largest immigrant population in the country,
citizenship and ESL classes are offered to recent immigrants through the Los
Angeles County's Federation of Labor's Labor Immigrant Assistance Project. In
Wisconsin, the AFL-CIO contracts directly with the state vocational and
technical schools to offer basic skills and ESL instruction to the union members
at local union halls and at the worksites (Sarmiento & Kay, 1990).
Union/Company Partnership Funds
Many unions have negotiated basic skills and ESL training through collective
bargaining agreements with employers. Union dues and matching funds from
employers provide health, education, and welfare benefits for workers. Examples
of unions with these negotiated educational benefits include the American
Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) in New York City;
the United Auto Workers (UAW); the United Steelworkers of America; and the
Communications Workers of America. To extend the educational benefits of union
membership, companies and unions are increasingly sponsoring programs where
spouses and other family members are eligible to participate. UAW, offering
workplace education programs through a joint fund with GM, Ford, and Chrysler,
requires that recruitment include reaching out to spouses.
These joint union/company funds were originally targeted for tuition
reimbursement for workers enrolled in classes at local community colleges and
other educational institutions. Increasingly, the monies support basic skills
and ESL classes offered at the workplace, especially in industries where entry
level workers lack the skills and language necessary to access the tuition
reimbursement program (Alamprese & Kay, 1993).
Unions Forming Partnerships with Employers and Educators
Some individual unions provide workplace instruction in partnership with
businesses and educational institutions. Many of these programs have been
funded, at least in part, through federal initiatives such as the National
Workplace Literacy Program of the U.S. Department of Education. An example of
one such program with strong union involvement is the Worker Education Program
in Chicago. In this collaboration, the educational partner, Northeastern
Illinois University Teachers Center, is the recipient of the federal monies.
However, the education staff has offices at the union hall of the labor partner,
the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE!). Many of
the classes are held at the union hall, and all partner companies are selected
in consultation with the union.
CURRICULA AND GOALS
Workplace ESL instruction and curricula
for union programs incorporate the range of approaches and techniques found in
many adult ESL programs. Like adult education programs anywhere, most workplace
ESL programs use activities from many different approaches--from
competency-based and grammar-based approaches to the more participatory
approaches such as whole language, language experience, and learner writing and
publishing. [See Peyton and Crandall, 1995, for a discussion of approaches and
philosophies in adult ESL instruction.] For example, at a New York City
electronics factory where workers were primarily Spanish-speaking women
represented by the UAW, learners participated in an oral history project and
practiced reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Learners taped interviews
with coworkers, listened to the tapes in class, and discussed issues from the
interviews. Then they wrote introductions to the interviews and responded in
writing to what coworkers had said in their interviews. Finally, learners
compiled their work on this project and published an illustrated book and the
tapes documenting their work and union experience in the factory (Gothowitz,
Although most workplace ESL programs teach job-related English so workers can
perform their jobs competently and increase productivity, unions also teach what
learners want to know and what unions want their members to know. Many programs
include instruction in general life skills as well as job-specific instruction,
and offer worker-centered education where worker rights as well as worker
responsibilities are taught (Auerbach & Wallerstein, 1987; Collins, Balmuth,
& Jean, 1989; Sarmiento & Kay, 1990). Further, especially in industries
moving to the high performance workplace, managers and unions alike are
recognizing the importance of developing problem-solving and critical thinking
skills (Nash & Uvin, 1993; Pratt, 1995).
Finally, as a quality of life issue and as part of their instruction about
workplace rights, health and safety instruction is stressed in union-sponsored
programs. Immigrant workers are more likely to hold low-paying and hazardous
jobs. And, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (1994), a
study reported that Spanish-speaking workers suffered job injuries 80 percent
more often than other workers. Health and safety instructional materials used by
union programs include publications by Auerbach and Wallerstein, 1987; Gude,
1993; and Szudy and Arroyo, 1994.
Labor unions have provided ESL instruction at
the workplace since the early days of the century. Today, through partnerships
with one another, with educators, and with employers, many unions are offering
ESL instruction to assure that immigrant workers are prepared to face the
challenges of today's workplace and can secure and maintain employment at a
living wage. "Special thanks to Tracy Gross, UNITE! Assistant Education
Director, for historical perspective on labor unions' involvement in education."
Alamprese, J.A., & Kay, A. (1993). "Literacy
on the cafeteria line: Evaluation of the Skills Enhancement Training Program."
Washington, DC: COSMOS Corporation [and Ruttenberg, Kilgallon & Associates].
(ED 368 933)
Auerbach, E., & Wallerstein, N. (1987). "ESL for action: Problem-posing
at the workplace." Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Collins, S., Balmuth, M., & Jean, P. (1989). So we can use our own names,
and write the laws by which we live: Educating the new U.S. labor force.
"Harvard Educational Review, 59"(4), 454-469.
Gothowitz, L. (1987). The life of the I.E.H. people in Local 259.
"Information Update, 4"(1), 12. New York, NY: Literacy Assistance Center.
Gude, B. (1993). "Health and safety ESL and ABE curriculum: Final report,
minigrant program." Washington, DC: Association for Community Based Education.
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. (1994). "Statement of Ralph G. Neas,
Executive Director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, in support of
comprehensive OSHA reform." Washington, DC: Author. [Press release.]
Nash, A., & Uvin, J. (1993). "Workplace education mini course pilot
project final report." Malden, MA: The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Department
of Education. (ED 363 739)
Peyton, J., & Crandall, J. (1995). "Philosophies and approaches in adult
ESL literacy instruction." ERIC Digest. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse
for ESL Literacy Education. (Available from NCLE at the address on the front.)
Pratt, W. (1995, Fall). What is a "high-performance" workplace? "NewsCenter
Kentucky 2"(2), 10.
Sarmiento, A., & Kay, A. (1990). "Worker-centered learning: A union guide
to workplace literacy." Washington, DC: Human Resource Development Institute,
AFL-CIO. (ED 338 863)
Szudy, E., & Arroyo, M.G. (1994). "The right to understand: Linking
literacy to health and safety training." Berkeley: University of California. (ED