Designing classes for workers, with workers

 

Arma Container workers celebrate the completion of their workplace English class. They were joined at the ceremony by Sean Campbell and John Sheha of Teamsters Local 813; Chris Scocco, the Operations Manager at ARMA; Maureen Arma of Suffolk County Community College; Danielle Dunn, the class Instructor; and Eric Shtob of CWE.

 

Often, language can be a barrier for immigrant workers in protecting themselves. So when Teamsters Local 813 members at Arma Container asked union president Sean Campbell for English classes, it was a request he took seriously.
 
“It’s a safety issue,” says Campbell. “If you don’t speak English, then you won’t understand safety directions from English-speaking managers. If part of your job is operating heavy machinery, you need to be able to read any safety documentation associated with it.”
 
Arma Container is a Suffolk County-based producer of shipping and packaging supplies. Local 813 represents the company’s warehouse workers.
 
Earlier this year, the union reached out to the Consortium for Worker Education to provide the classes. The union, CWE, and company management met, and developed a series of classes that would teach English skills that workers can put to use on the shop floor.
 
This approach differs from more traditional English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) instruction, where students focus on basic phrases for everyday interactions. Arma workers wanted to be able to understand what their managers were saying to them and be able to read their union contract. They also knew that understanding the vocabulary of their workplace would open up opportunities for promotions.
 
So CWE designed a training that made sense to this set of workers, and worked with the Suffolk County Community College to provide an instructor. Arma Container owners Howard Glass and Bruce Margolis allowed workers to attend classes on paid-time, to make it easier to participate.
 
It is the latest in a series of workplace English classes that CWE has provided across the region.
 
For the Teamsters, the need to empower immigrant workers came to the fore this summer, when a Local 813 member, Eber Garcia Vasquez, was detained and deported by federal immigration authorities. “Every year, he went to ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and got his authorization reapproved to stay in the country and work,” says Campbell. “He has a wife and children here, and they are all citizens. But this time, they just detained him and deported him two weeks later.”
 
Following Garcia-Vasquez’s deportation, Local 813 and other New York Teamsters locals voted to become a sanctuary union. They are now working with CWE to train union members on their rights in interactions with immigration agents.
 
At Arma Container, the English class culminated with 15 workers graduating at a ceremony this month. Participation and enthusiasm were high, so CWE and partners are in discussion to continue the program in January.
 
“Unions want to be able to provide whatever training our members need, but we don’t always have the expertise or funding to do so,” says Campbell. “It is great to have a partner in CWE, to help our members empower themselves and advance in their careers.”