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Berkeley High Students Learn Negotiation Skills

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday March 30, 2007

The union made some big wins at Berkeley High on Tuesday. Except that the students were acting as both management and labor and the cash was just play money. 

Juniors and seniors got together in the school library for a crash course in negotiation—courtesy the California Federa-tion of Teachers (CFT). 

The day-long session was part of CFT’s Collective Bargaining Education Project (CBEP), which was held for the first time at the BHS campus. Based on the popular education techniques of Paolo Freire, the CBEP provides students with a range of labor history and contemporary union organizing and collective bargaining role-plays for the high school classroom. 

“It’s a way of teaching them conflict resolution in the workplace. In this case, we have picked a hospital,” said Fred Glass, communications director for CFT. 

“We took kids from a couple of classes and divided them into two teams—the management, which represented the hospital administration, and the labor, which represented the hospital workers. The issues in the negotiations are wages, medical benefits, health and safety, seniority and child care. The smaller teams are having caucuses—they are either talking about labor or management.” 

Barry Fike, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), was heading one of the management caucuses. 

“It feels good to be on the other side of the table for once,” said Fike smiling. 

Glass told the Planet that the high school curriculum did not have extensive information on unions. “We feel it is important to fill the gap in educating our children. They need to know that unions provide protection. If it wasn’t for the union, we wouldn’t have things like minimum wage, a 40-hour work week or even a weekend. And yet very little of those are actually reflected in history books.” 

As the students grappled with their fact sheets and figure charts, Fike pointed out that this lesson was helping them use their math skills. 

“I am also a teacher,” he said, “and it gives me great pleasure to see the kids learning through real life experience. The project started off slow. It took the kids some time to understand the dynamics of the issue. This is the best kind of learning, except it’s close to the real world.” 

As negotiations were brought to the table, future leaders unfolded. Breanna Cantwell—a Berkeley High senior who looked confident enough to argue on Donald Trump’s reality TV show The Apprentice—emerged as the toughest negotiator on Fike’s management team. 

“She asked the most questions. She wanted to know what the union would do with the money,” quipped Zoe Adkins, another senior. 

“This project taught me that you can’t manage a company on your own. You have to give and take. You have to think of both sides,” Zoe said. 

“There should be no room for ambiguity. If you are not specific with how you will spend your money then people start getting suspicious of your motives,” said Breanna. 

The project coincided with the current curriculum of the high schoolers, said BHS English teacher Alan Miller.  

“They are learning about the Great Depression. That’s where the minimum wage and other little things we take for granted today come from. It’s also great because it teaches them argumentation and evidence gathering techniques. They are reading Machiavelli’s The Prince to see what it is like to apply those principles in real life,” he said. 

Mark Greenside, a teacher at Merritt College, told the groups that every relationship involved negotiations. 

“It just doesn’t apply to work, but also to life. Who gets the best office, the best typewriter ... who gets to take out the trash, walk the dog. The list is endless.” 

As the negotiations were completed, the teams led by Fike and Mark Leach, who was representing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), congratulated the students on the results. 

Both sides agreed to a 5.5 percent wage increase, 100 percent medical benefits and partial childcare. 

The most difficult issue, members of the labor team said, had been chasing the medical benefits. 

“It was difficult for the management because they had to fit it into a budget. It was difficult for us because we wanted more money,” said twelfth grader Will Henderson. Henderson is hoping to study film at San Francisco State University in fall. 

“One question you want to think about is whether the people you are representing at the table are going to be happy with the results or not,” were Leach’s parting words of advice to the group. 

“In collective bargaining if the union membership say no, then you come back to the table.”