Teachers union promotes consumer awareness

Heights students Aviva Klein (left) and Gabriela Wolin model the new union-made Heights Tigers spirit shirt. 

T-shirts are often available for fundraising, group cohesion, and to show commitment to a common cause. Over the years, I have become choosier about the T-shirts I wear because sometimes the message on the shirt is overpowered by its origin.

When I look at the label on many T-shirts, I am uncomfortable with who might be making and assembling the fabric, and under what conditions, and who is printing the shirt. I know that it is virtually impossible to place these kinds of standards on everything I wear, but for me, and many people I know, trying to be socially conscious consumers of printed T-shirts is important.

The T-shirts that the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union designs are always printed at a union shop on a union-made shirt. Some argue that this practice is prohibitively expensive. That has not been our experience. Our T-shirts cost less than $8, even when we buy a small number of them.

Last spring, the governing body of our local directed me to ask the CH-UH Board of Education to examine purchases made by the school system and organizations that serve our students. We asked for purchases of blank T-shirts (blanks) to be made from union or fair trade providers. Of course, we preferred the screening/embroidering/printing to be contracted to union shops, but understand that many organizations have relationships with small family businesses in the district that are important to maintain. 

The board did not give a formal response to our letter, so a few of us decided to see what it would take to produce a T-shirt that we could proudly wear for spirit days at school. We ended up producing a Heights Tigers T-shirt that is deeply rooted in socially conscious purchasing.

One of our high school art teachers, working with her students, produced the artwork. The shirts were bought from a family-owned company in Pennsylvania that is a union shop. Every step in producing the blanks takes place in the U.S., from growing the cotton to sewing the fabric together. The screen-printing was completed in a Career Tech classroom at Warrensville Heights High School, which is in our Career Tech consortium. The Tiger Shop at Cleveland Heights High School, where students in special education programs get a chance to learn job skills, is processing the shirt orders.

Profits from the sale of these shirts are earmarked for special education scholarships for graduating seniors. Moreover, they look great, only cost $10, and still give us $3 profit per shirt.

The message on the back of the shirt states “Fair Trade, Union Made, Student Produced.” Everything about this product is morally right and completely in sync with the values of our community. 

If you are interested in purchasing a shirt, contact the Tiger Shop, run by Pam Fishman (216-320-3064, p_fishman@chuh.org) and Laura Stuart-Lilley and their Heights High students. We are also helping sell some of the shirts at our office, 2490 Lee Blvd., Suite 106 (216-321-0020). Mac's Backs on Coventry has also expressed interest in perhaps selling the shirts at the store in limited quantity.

The Tiger Shop is able to facilitate the production of shirts for organizations both within the school and outside, using the same materials and student workforce. For more information, contact Fishman or Stuart-Lilley.

 My dream would be to expand this type of work to more organizations and products, helping more people become aware of what they are buying, and helping provide our students with valuable experience in both the production and retail part of business. The Cleveland Heights Teachers Union believes in promoting social justice, democracy and fairness as core values that guide its activities. We are proud to help facilitate this type of venture and hope that you will help support and expand it.

Ari Klein

Ari Klein is a lifelong community member, math teacher at Cleveland Heights High School, and president of the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union.

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Volume 9, Issue 1, Posted 10:17 AM, 12.31.2015