Engaged Faculty Fellowship Program

Kate Bronfenbrenner

A 2015-16 Engaged Faculty Fellow, Kate Bronfenbrenner is the director of labor education research and a senior lecturer at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, where she teaches and Kate Bronfenbrenner headshotdoes research on union and employer strategies in organizing and bargaining in the global economy. Read her faculty profile for more information.


In past years, Bronfenbrenner has brought in union speakers to her class, 4000/6000 Labor Relations , to talk about their different union organizing models, but the students never got to meet workers or see the organizing campaigns in process. This past year, she was determined to provide the undergraduate and graduate students more of an engaged learning experience in an effort to better meet the needs of students taking the course as well as the unions, social justice organizations and other community groups with whom these students will work with after graduation.

As an Engaged Faculty Fellow, Bronfenbrenner wanted to significantly strengthen the amount of student engagement in her teaching and research. For 4000/6000 Organizing, she wanted to make it more of an engaged learning experience so that the students go beyond academic literature to actively learn more about which workers are organizing and which are not. Bronfenbrenner accomplished this by adding a two-day trip to New York City, where students engaged with the organizing campaign process and the Workers Center.

On the first day of the trip, students were able to observe workers from SEIU 32BJ, UNITE HERE and the police union all using very different strategies in presenting their cases before Port Authority Wage Hearings. Students were also able to talk to the SEIU workers after the meeting and watch an impromptu union meeting and strike vote in the park across from the Authority. The following day, students went to the Retail Action Network and met with representatives from the Workers Center, organizers from the RWDSU Zara campaign and organizers from the UFCW Capital Strategies Department. Staff from each group described their organizing work and then took answers from the students. On their way home, each student wrote journal entries about their experience. Readings and class discussion before and after the trip were designed to make the experience more valuable.

On top of adding more engagement to 4000/6000 Organizing, Bronfenbrenner also wanted to add more engagement to another course she teaches, 4040/6060 Contract Administration. Students in this class do weekly problem sets working off three collective bargaining agreements from different unions and industrial sectors in the Ithaca community. The students are divided into three groups, and over the course of the semester meet with the union representative and the workers about current issues in the workplace, observe grievance hearings and watch bargaining sessions. For the final paper, students pick an issue that they believe would be best for the union to focus on and win. Students then write out the best strategy the union should pursue to win the issue and why it is the best course of action.

Why She Does It

Few in the labor movement or in academia would argue with the concept that labor’s future depends on making dramatic gains in new organizing. Yet, there continues to be a wide range of opinion, both within the labor movement and among scholars studying the labor movement, about the most effective union strategies to increase union organizing success, and whether any success is possible. In recent years this debate has taken on new significance as many, both inside and outside the movement, have begun to question past organizing models and experiment with new and old strategies. In 4000/6000 Organizing and 4040/6060 Contract Administration, students have been able to tackle these issues through completing a series of short papers and one longer research paper in response to readings, video, primary documents and onsite visits to live union and worker center campaigns.

The results have been rewarding, as Bronfenbrenner has had enthusiastic classes with more active student participation, and most importantly, has witnessed more student learning that she has seen in many years. Students are speaking more in class; they are grasping and retaining more of the lectures, discussions and readings; and they are becoming better and more fluent writers as they journal about their work with community stakeholders, in their short writing assignments and in their research papers. Students speak extremely positively about their engagement with workers, labor organizations and policy makers; and the feeling is mutual. Bronfenbrenner has gotten very positive feedback from everyone with whom the students have interacted in the community and the students have expressed gratitude for the engaged-learning experience.

Engaged Faculty Fellowship Program

A yearlong cohort program in which faculty dive deep into the theory and practice of engaged learning; meet monthly to discuss readings, share projects and workshop challenges; and help transform what it means to teach at Cornell

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