Floral Park man teaches kids about labor unions in new book

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Mark Torres, a Floral Park resident, wrote a bilingual, children's holiday book called "Good Guy Jake," that teaches kids about labor unions. (Photo courtesy of Hard Ball Press)

Labor unions aren’t the first thing that comes to mind for most people when they think about Christmas – but Mark Torres’ latest book might change that.

In “Good Guy Jake,” a bilingual kids book, Torres tells the story of a sanitation worker who would fix up broken toys on the side of the road and donate them to kids in shelters.

But Jake is fired when someone turns him in for breaking the rules.

“If he’s not in a union the story ends there,” Torres, a Floral Park resident, said.

Fortunately, fictional Jake is in a labor union and files a grievance and goes to an arbitration hearing. In the end, a separate toy drive is started, so the charity isn’t lost and no rules are broken, Torres said.

While labor unions might seem too mature of a topic for kids to grasp, Torres said he defines terms in a way kids understand. For example, he said he explains in the book that a grievance is a complaint and an arbitration is like court.

Torres serves as general counsel to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 810, a New York City union. He said the book helps children understand labor unions in an engaging way.

“It’s not some dry manual,” Torres said.

Torres said one of his goals was to teach kids that everyone has rights in the workplace.

The story also allows children of union workers to understand their parents jobs and be proud of them, Torres said.

Torres said he often hears kids say a glossed over statement such as “my dad works in a union,” without understanding what it is the union does.

“That generalization dulls the movement itself,” Torres said.

The book is also invigorating a new generation that cares about labor unions, Torres said.

“It’s giving a fresh jolt of positive energy to the labor movement that we’ve been lacking so long, from politics to laws stacked against us to dwindling numbers in general,” Torres said.

There’s a sort of perfect storm that makes Torres the right person to share this story; his background is a blend of union experience, fatherhood and writing.

Torres has served as general counsel to Local 810 for almost a decade. He also serves as the director of legal affairs to the union’s affiliated benefit funds.

Before serving the union for legal counsel, Torres was a Local 810 union member himself.

Torres was a refrigeration engineer at New York University for nearly 20 years – a job he continued working full-time as he graduated from the university in 2003 and from Fordham University School of Law in 2008.

He first worked for a large law firm, but after rounds of major layoffs in 2008 Torres found his way back to the union, he said.

In hindsight Torres said he doesn’t know why he didn’t plan on that originally, because it turned out to be his dream job.

“[For] almost 30 years I’ve been fully invested in unions,” Torres said. “Fighting the same cause.”

Before writing “Good Guy Jake,” Torres self-published “A Stirring in the North Folk,” a crime novel released in 2015.

But writing for kids was arguably harder, Torres said. His two youngest kids, 10-year-old Olivia and 11-year-old Jake, served as his first audience and editors, he said.

Torres said he’d run parts of the book by his kids to make sure it was age appropriate and made sense to them.

Since then, Torres has read the book to both his son’s sixth-grade class and his daughter’s fifth-grade class.

In Olivia’s class, Torres used a couple of the suggested questions at the back of the book for a class discussion, he said.

When he asked the class if they thought Jake would’ve gotten his job back if he wasn’t in a union, they all said no, Torres said.

“What a powerful response that was,” Torres said. “To catch that at such an early age … that’s priceless. It was a wonderful lightning rod of positivity that they’re learning it so young.”

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