American Dream

3 Tips for Explaining Labor Unions to Your Kids

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My first introduction to labor unions was both stressful and confusing. When I was 10 years old, my stepfather, who worked as a machinist, was required by his shop union to go on strike for several weeks. He was obligated to picket his workplace, and he received no paycheck during that time. He didn’t agree with the union’s dispute with management, however, and would have preferred to keep working.

In the time since that first experience with a labor union, I’ve come to understand both the history of labor in our country and the need for organized labor to protect workers. But I’ve also never forgotten that unions can also wield power in a way that might hurt its members and the businesses that keep them employed.

Considering the complexity surrounding the issue of labor unions, parents may struggle to find the words to explain this complexity to their children. Media portrayals of unions have a tendency to look at the issue in black and white. So how can you educate your children about unions without falling into the same all-or-nothing thinking? Here are three tips from educators for introducing labor unions to your children.

1. Start With a Definition

Part of my confusion at my stepfather’s situation stemmed from not entirely understanding what a labor union was. I knew that his union representative was not his boss, but I didn’t understand how he could require my stepfather to picket his place of employment instead of going to work. If kids only pick up information about unions from the news, they might not understand exactly how unions operate. A PBS lesson plan for Labor Day suggests starting with the following definition: “an organized association of workers formed to protect and further their rights and interests.

2. Explain the Effect of Past Unions on the Modern Working World

We take many workplace standards for granted that are the result of union activity. The eight-hour workday, weekends, child labor laws, workplace safety, and workers’ compensation all came about because of organized labor. Introducing your child to the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 in particular, including the push to reform working conditions after that tragedy, can help them understand the influence labor unions have had on modern-day America.

3. Ask Your Kids to Think About Unions’ Influence Today

Once your children understand some of the work benefits brought about by labor unions, ask them to consider how unions might continue to affect the workplace, taking a look at both the positives and negatives of union power. Ask your kids what they think would happen if a union wields a lot of power but does not work well with management. Ask them to consider the consequences of unions protecting members but not necessarily the interests of the business as a whole. This can be an excellent lesson in both human nature and the problems with unintended consequences, and it may prove more meaningful than simply pointing out specific instances of union excesses or benefits.

Helping your children understand the complex nature of organized labor isn’t something you can do in a single conversation. But introducing these ideas and asking your children to think through the issues themselves will help them gain an important understanding of the modern workplace.

Emily Guy Birken is a former educator and respected personal finance writer. She is the author of the best-seller The Five Years Before You Retire, and the forth-coming book Choose Your Retirement. Her work has appeared on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, Business Insider, MSN Money, and Kiplinger's, and Birken has been a guest on Wisconsin Public Radio as well as several podcasts, including Stacking Benjamins and The Doughroller.Birken's background in education allows her to make complex financial topics relatable and easily understood by the layperson. Her mix of no-nonsense advice, humor, and research into the latest studies on finance and behavior make her work a go-to resource for anyone hoping to get a better handle on money matter.