Viva la causa, or long live the cause, was the phrase Cesar Chavez coined while working for equal rights of farmer workers in California in the 1960's. We began our unit of workers' rights by learning about this Chavez and this movement for a few reasons. One, most of my kids have at least heard of Cesar Chavez. He is probably the most well known union organizers in history. Also, many of my students immediately made a connection to Chavez and the other farm workers. A majority of them are Hispanic have some awareness of the struggles that immigrants face in America.
What I personally like about Cesar Chavez and the story of the farm workers is the lesson of perseverance and creativity. The fact that Chavez and his group came up with ideas, and revised them when they weren't working, rather than giving up entirely, is such an important message for my students to hear. When striking alone didn't create the necessary changes, they went back to the drawing board. They often looked to other great change makers, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, for ideas. The thought of giving up was never an option. Rather, they revised, reconstructed ideas, and continued on their mission with determination!
To learn about Chavez and the farm workers, we watched a great documentary from Teaching Tolerance (one of my favorite teaching resources EVER!) called "Viva La Causa". Along with the video, there is also some great information to help students understand the similarities and differences between Chavez, MLK and Gandhi. This was a great introduction to the discussion of nonviolence.
After we learned some basics about unions and union organizing, boycotting, and protesting, we dug a little deeper into the world of workers' rights and began exploring sweatshops. First, we watched an interesting video about the sweatshops that exist in the United States. The video can be found at this LINK.
Truth be told, the video was a little old, and I'm not quite sure if/how much has changed. The optimist in me hopes that the information is so outdated that it is practically irrelevant. If anyone has more information about the current state of sweatshops in the U.S., I would love to some information!
After a day or so learning the basics out sweatshops, my students read articles about some of the more well known international situations regarding sweatshops. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of information about the ongoing atrocities that many garment workers are facing around the world. We read about the fire that killed 112 people in Bangladesh, as well as the building collapse also in Bangladesh that killed over 1100 workers. Some kids also read about Nike and the many issues that have come to the surface regarding the treatment of the workers at their factories. In addition, we looked at some poetry that also depicted the trials of sweatshops.
A few weeks ago, I met with a friend and was tell him about this unit. He is a big union advocate, so I was interested in his thoughts. After talking for a bit, he looked at me and said, "So are you learning about anything good that's happened?" It may seem like we only focused on the negative side of workers rights, but we did move toward making some change. One of the coolest things I learned throughout this unit was about a new ordinance the city of Chicago just passed. This ordinance prohibits city employee uniforms from being purchased from sweatshops. This may seem like just another article title, but it really is a pretty big deal! Check it out HERE and see what a huge step Chicago is making in ending the exploitation of sweatshop employees!
This issue isn't as cut an dry as others for me. Obviously, I believe the abuse and exploitation by sweatshop is inhumane and needs to be changed. At the same time, I understand why it is such a difficult system to overhaul. After reading the article about Chicago's new ordinance, one of my kids made the comment, "But isn't that going to cost more money?" And it all comes back to money... As a thrifty shopper myself, I get that people want the cheapest possible prices. But what we all need to ask ourselves is, "What is the cost on others?"