Teaching about Labor / Labour Day

Posted by Nancy Callan on 18 August 2012 | 0 Comments

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If you are teaching ESL to immigrants or EFL to VISA students and the topic of Labor Day in the United States or Labour Day in Canada comes up, you may find that your students also celebrate a day for workers in their home countries, but that day is usually on May 1st. A national holiday in over 80 countries, May 1st is also celebrated unofficially in many more.

Labor Day/ Labour Day in North America is not celebrated on May 1st for a variety of reasons, but it’s fair to say that a desire to distance the day from the left-wing politics and communist activities of May 1st was the primary reason.

It’s worthwhile reminding both young and older students that we have unions to thank for the weekend, a concept we take for granted now, along with the eight-hour workday.

If you are looking for conversation activities, I’ve found that you can generate a great discussion in your class on Labor Day with the following questions about unions, taken from my Holidays jigsaw books:

1. What are three reasons why some workers want to join unions?

2. What are two reasons why some workers do not want to join unions?

3. What are three common reasons why workers go on strike?

4. Which workers do you think should not have the right to go on strike?

Here are some possible answers to the questions, so that you are prepared for the discussion:

1. Job stability (you cannot be fired without just cause), higher pay, better benefits, support in times of conflict with management, better working conditions (freedom from harassment), collective bargaining levels the playing field somewhat between worker and boss at times of contract negotiation.

2. Do not want to pay union dues, do not politically support unions, satisfied with current work situation and wages.

3. Better working conditions, better wages, better benefits, to stop their wages from going down, because they think their employer has been unfair.

4. This question generates a lot of opinions. Write students’ list of occupations supplied on the board. Common answers are paramedics, police, nurses and fire fighters. You can elicit more opinions by supplying examples of strikes in your city. Locally, we had the following strikes in recent years:

  • a protracted garbage collectors’ strike during the summer months that left the city stinky and unsightly.
  • a bus drivers’ strike that caused some of my own students to lose their jobs and many others to save to buy a car
  • a paramedics’ strike that saw ambulance workers working at less than full capacity
  • a chocolate workers’ strike at Purdy’s Chocolates
  • a teacher’s strike

The discussion generally expands to include teachers, garbage collectors and all manner of occupations whose strikes would result in inconvenience to society. The teacher can guide the discussion by eliciting reasons that the occupations listed on the board should not be allowed to strike, such as safety or inconvenience, and then returning back and re-evaluating answers based on these identified reasons. Is inconvenience to others really a legitimate grounds for preventing a worker from striking?

You can find a jigsaw for students to learn about Labor Day in the United States in Callan’s American Holiday Jigsaws, found here, and a jigsaw on Labour Day in Canada in Callan’s Holiday Jigsaws, found here. There is a book for beginner level students and one for intermediate level, as well.

I hope these suggestions for discussion questions make for a lively class studying about Labor / Labour Day. 

For American teachers, here is a great link from The Upworthy on facts about Labor Day: click here


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