Woody Guthrie Foundation and Archives Educational Curriculum
SOCIAL STUDIES: Unions
"You can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union," sings Woody Guthrie. He had witnessed exploitation of workers across the United States and participated in the union movement, especially singing at events to promote the organization of labor. Alone and as a member of The Almanac Singers, Woody sang at union meetings during the 1940's.
As Bonnie Christensen writes in Woody Guthrie, Poet of the People: "It was clear to Woody that the people needed a voice to speak for them, a voice to ask their questions. They needed someone who was not afraid of the bosses, someone who knew what it was like to be poor. Woody Guthrie became their voice, and songs were his way of speaking. 'I made up songs telling what I thought was wrong and how to make it right,' he said."
Teachers who read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck will get insights into what Woody knew about folks trying to organize as well as the problems they faced.
Your class may listen to the following songs:
As Woody witnessed the plight of miners, migrant workers, builders and factory workers, he came to believe that workers would only achieve justice if they formed unions. The biographies in the bibliography tell of his involvement at rallies and union meetings, speaking and singing.
A great way to find out about unions is to invite parents of students in your class or school who are union members to come in and speak to the children. Have the class interview the union member. Ask them why they are in a union, what are some of the protections they receive and what activities they can share about their particular union.
Based on bibliographical materials and presentations by parents who are union members, students can break up into small groups and create a web together. In the middle of the web they write "Union members have common goals" with spokes coming out of the center. On the spokes, they brainstorm what some of the common goals are (fair treatment, insurance benefits, decent hours, adequate bathroom facilities, time off, safe working conditions, just wages).
Using their web, groups can make a union poster reflecting their ideas. Or instead of a visual image, students could write a mock radio show script and perform it for the class. Students may tie their project in to an actual situation in their neighborhood or city that involves an issue in which unions are involved. For example, students in Chicago became involved in a boycott of a play that would not hire union musicians.
Proceeds from the premiere of the film "Bound for Glory", based on Woody Guthrie's book of the same title, went to the United Farmworkers. Investigate Cesar Chavez and the founding of the United Farmworkers. What problems did the workers face? How were they similar to the issues faced by migrant workers during the 1930's? What are some of the achievements of the United Farm Workers? What are some of the methods they used to achieve more rights for workers?
In learning about Cesar Chavez and methods used by his union, students will naturally come to study nonviolence. Investigate the use of boycotts, especially the lettuce and grape boycotts. Another nonviolent tool used by Chavez was fasting. This can be traced back to Gandhi. What other famous Americans used fasting and nonviolence to change social policy? What are examples of nonviolent resistance today?
Given the tradition of unions and Gandhian nonviolence, draw connections to issues of today. Why would some communities call for a boycott of Nike or Old Navy? What produce companies are currently being boycotted because of their treatment of workers?
In what ways is Student Council like a union? What issues affecting students could be taken up by a union? What schools have Student Unions? For older children may explore issues of the student movement here and abroad. (e.g. the student anti-war movement in the 1960's or the student anti-nuclear movement, the student movement in Tiannemen Square.)
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