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Worker and popular education

Avery Wear and James Boyle discuss the massive adult education system organized by the U.S. Left in the early 20th century.

In the first half of the 20th century large union movements, and mass socialist and communist parties, stood on the foundation of a class-conscious, socialist-leaning working class.

How can we contribute to the organizing of a similar working-class culture and militancy today? Struggle is key. Early 20th century socialists equally believed in the necessity of working class education programs, as well. What Historian Marvin Gettleman called “the largest system of adult education in the country up to that time” was organized by Communists and other labor radicals from the 1920s to the 1950s. Few socialists devote attention to this kind of work today. Before considering why, it is instructive to review workers’ education as it existed back then.

Beginning with the Rand School, founded in 1906 by the Socialist Party, International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), and Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union, residential workers’ colleges existed until the McCarthy era. Dress and Waistmakers Locals 22 and 25 set up Unity House in 1919 as a summer educational retreat. In 1921 the ILGWU, American Federation of Teachers, Women’s Trade Union League, Pennsylvania Federation of Labor, and Amalgamated Textile Workers of America established Brookwood Labor College. Its founding tenets contain the socialist message that “a new social order is needed and is coming…education will hasten its coming…(and) the workers are the ones who will usher in this new order.”

Most famously, socialist-aligned Protestant ministers created the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee in 1932 “to provide an educational center in the South for the training of rural and industrial leaders.” The Highlander Center survives today, in part because of its connection to the great names of the Civil Rights era taught there: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Septima Clark, Ralph Abernathy, but also because of the inspiring work of a new generation of radical organizers at the Center.

The union-led schools contained reformist wings that eventually dominated when revolutionaries left. In 1926 American Federation of Labor President William Green investigated allegations of subversive leftism at Brookwood, then cut ties in 1928. Brookwood President AJ Muste resigned rather than accept the School Board demand that he quit the Conference for Progressive Labor Action, which went on to found the American Labor Party and lead the Toledo 1934 general strike.

The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) started labor schools in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. These schools were premised on a concept that is as revolutionary today as it was when Karl Marx wrote about “self-emancipation.” Working-class people can learn revolutionary theory and they can liberate themselves by wielding that theory in their workplaces, in social struggles on the streets, and in their own self-development as readers, writers, speakers, and organizers.

In service of this most radical of ideas, the labor schools were created as night schools for working adults. The New York Workers School that operated from 1923 to 1944 offered two 90 minute evening classes Monday through Friday at 7:00 p.m. and 8:40 p.m. Education for the emancipation of the working class is an entirely different project from education in the service of the capitalist system. The labor schools offered a radical departure from the individualism that constitutes the core principle of the higher education tradition in the United States. Liberation was offered up in the labor schools as a collective undertaking. Instead of personal enrichment, scholarly detachment, or professional advancement, the schools offered a collective philosophy to students that was intended to prepare them to participate in the social project of emancipation. They rejected the traditional, ostensibly neutral, academic detachment of theory from practice, by bringing students to protests and picket lines.

The World War II alliance between Roosevelt and Stalin suspended the worst repression against the CPUSA. In its Democratic Front phase, New York Workers School became the Thomas Jefferson School of Social Science or Jeff School. The whole network reached its peak at this time. Up to ten thousand students a year attended the Manhattan Jeff School plus its annexes in Harlem, Brooklyn, the Bronx and elsewhere. The California Labor School in San Francisco, the second largest, had enrollment above five thousand with annexes in Santa Rosa, Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno and Oakland. The price of a 10-week course at Jeff peaked at $8, about $90 in today’s money.

California Labor School art show in Union Square, San Francisco, 1954. Photo credit: San Francisco State University Labor Archives

The majority of the students at the labor schools were immigrants. Just as today, immigrants occupied the bottom position of the social pyramid in the U.S., so they had the most to gain and the least to fear from the complete transformation of society. Immigrants are also the least assimilated into the toxic individualism typical to native born whites in the U.S. It is an ideology that can neither process the thought of liberty without thinking of private property, nor process the thought of tyranny without thinking about public institutions.

Alongside immigrants, the schools also attracted Black students. This is not surprising, considering that the most consistent work of the CPUSA was in its abiding theoretical and practical commitment to the world-historic struggle of Black people in the U.S. The affinity also built on a tradition of autonomous Black education tied to liberation struggles. Some enslaved people, by various means, managed to become literate despite monstrous laws prohibiting this. Emancipated Blacks of all ages poured into literacy classes organized by Black and white abolitionists, ministers, and missionaries, concurrent with Reconstruction-era struggles for self-defense, political representation, civil rights, and unionism. More recently, movement-run Freedom Schools accompanied Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee organizing in the rural South, and Black Studies became the central demand of the Black freedom struggle on college campuses in the 1960s.

Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln School for Social Science took the lead in creating what would today be called a Black Studies curriculum. The schools were supported by giant figures like W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, who toured the campuses giving lectures and performances. William Patterson, the attorney who organized the defense of the Scottsboro boys, founded the Lincoln School. Doxie Wilkerson was another prominent Black leader and theorist who left academia to commit their scholarship to building a Black specific curriculum at the Jeff School from 1944 to 1956. Since the California School did not have an academic at hand, Black trade unionists took on this work in Oakland.

During World War II the schools expanded content aimed at the women workers surging into factory employment and unions. Historian Marvin Gettleman holds that the majority of students were women during those years.

Academics well beyond the party offered to teach in the schools. This often pushed content outside of CPUSA orthodoxy, though core curriculum stayed true to the party line. There were also teachers that offered a wealth of practical experience to their students: the dock workers and other union members that taught the labor classes. The schools received financial support from the unions: not just the red-friendly International Longshore and Warehouse Union under Harry Bridges, who gave generously to the California Labor School, but also unions that had been unfriendly. David Jenkins, the director of the California School recalled that 75 unions provided financial support for the school wholly independent of their politics. They were the direct beneficiaries of an education process that produced workers dedicated in mind and spirit to the union struggle.

Among other things, the schools were premised on an understanding of the explosive potential inherent in the chemistry of workers plus unions plus socialism. It is a chemistry that works in different times and places because all elements stand to gain, one with a rich tradition of success to be discovered in labor history classes. The schools became a part of that history as the win-win-win relationship flourished between them, the worker-students, and the unions. The school campuses took in droves of union workers. The schools also took education directly to union halls and even factory floors as lunch break lectures. The Jeff School Trade Union Division armed union workers with an arsenal of class-weaponry through their classes on public speaking, labor history, collective bargaining, labor journalism, and parliamentary procedure. Practical collaborations flourished as well, as the unions offered up their halls for school dances, and the schools mass-produced union fliers and pamphlets. The California Labor School Drama Department put on plays for agricultural workers in the Central Valley, with dock workers providing security from cops and vigilantes.

California Labor School Peoples’ Songs Branch Joint Action Committee agitating on the San Francisco waterfront in 1948. Photo credit: San Francisco State University Labor Archives

Lincoln School Trade Union Department Director Herman Schendel wrote the pamphlet Why Work for Nothing?, which was distributed across the various campuses as an introduction to the labor theory of value. In the chapter How does the Boss do it?, Schendel lays out to workers in their own spoken word language how capital steals value from labor in the production process:

Now what do you own (that you can live on)? As a modern wage-worker, all you own is your ability to work; you don’t own the plant or the product you make. And since that’s all you own, that’s all you can sell to the boss. You sell your ability to work, your power to labor, your labor power—or whatever you want to call it. You don’t sell the boss what you produce; you sell him your power to produce. And the boss, in turn, is buying your labor power for those eight hours. He’s paying you wages to get the use of you for the full eight hours. He’s not paying you for eight hours work, he’s paying you to work eight hours. That is where the difference comes in. That is where the unpaid labor comes in. You must produce more in those eight hours than he pays you. If you didn’t he wouldn’t hire you. And that’s the secret of unpaid labor.

Historian Toni Gilpin reports that the Left-led Farm Equipment workers’ union relied on the pamphlet to educate their rank and file.

Marvin Gettleman divides the curriculum of the Jeff School into five areas. (1) The “Science of society”: introducing Marxism as the scientific examination of the “economic, political, and social institutions of the world we live in.” (2) “What is philosophy?”: introducing the Marxist critique of philosophical and religious passivity rooted in the uncoupling of theory and praxis, and in the uncoupling of the spirit from attachment to “this world.” (3) “Life under capitalism,” bringing in radical political thinkers to lecture on the pressing issues of the day, including precursors to Black and Women’s studies. Doxie Wilkerson’s role in the creation of anti-racist, Black-specific education was matched by the work of Eleanor Flexner in the creation of feminist education. (4) “Labor studies and practices”: offering the theory of the working class as the agent of social change. (5) “Culture, psychology, and women’s issues”: classes in art, mental health, and family life where the social distortions specific to capitalism—racism and sexism—were examined in their specific manifestations in private life.

Their vital attractiveness for intellectuals and workers alike suggests that the schools succeeded as havens for freethinkers, despite countervailing dogmatism. Psychology departments divided over the Freudianism more prevalent at the California School, against the Soviet-line anti-Freudianism at Jeff. Arts thrived. Jenkins recounted that artists and performers eagerly offered their teaching. Those teachers who lived to see the popularity of the ideas of Paolo Freire often noted their similarities with the anti-hierarchical, student-led, experiential pedagogy deployed and debated in the labor schools.

United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), one of 11 unions expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1948 and 1949 for Communist influence, continues educating members in class-consciousness and solidarity today. From their 1952 pamphlet UE Fights for Women Workers, penned anonymously by young Betty Friedan and containing special attention to the issues of Black women, to the 2020 Us and Them Unionism, UE promulgates a class worldview. According to UE Education Director Kari Thompson, the union weaves this education into practical training in events at the local, regional, and national levels.

The writers of this article participate in an officially recognized Labor History Caucus in Service Employees International Union Local 221, representing some ten thousand San Diego County employees. After volunteering with the Local 221 new employee orientation program, in 2018 one of the authors was asked by the union to start a labor history class and given a free hand over format and content. The governing theme in monthly talks has been that capitalism depends on worker exploitation for its profits. It is pointed out that this also pulls down the pay of public sector workers because they must compete in the broad labor market along with those in the private sector. We illuminate all workers’ interest in racial and gender justice, our potential power in direct action, the need to fight for union democracy, and the need for international solidarity, from multiple angles in many sessions. Though we do not hesitate to reference Karl Marx, anarchists, the Communist Party, and other ostensibly forbidden topics, we have not sensed any discomfort with this.

The sessions have steadily grown a small audience inside the union, and they are also open to supporters outside. Regular attendees tend to be long-term work site leaders. The milieu of the caucus has helped to cohere organizing consistent with its teachings. We aim to reach more new hires, but we have come to suspect that the Left youth fetish leads us to miss what may be a prime, rather older audience for workers’ education and organizing.

We also help mount monthly popular education classes for the San Diego Tenants’ Union. These have similarly attracted an audience of repeat customers among those most involved in organizing their apartment complexes. This working-age immigrant audience (the sessions are in Spanish) drink in history and political-economic analysis. For those not educated in U.S. schools, the sessions fill knowledge gaps that might otherwise be taken to the grave.

These experiences convinced us that the Left underestimates the hunger for knowledge and theory among ordinary working class people today. Our experience is that well-prepared lectures of fifteen to forty minutes, followed by break-outs and whole group discussions, have been the most popular format. Lectures, like Sunday church sermons attended by millions of workers, fit brutally hectic working-class lives. No homework. No literacy requirements. No push to help lead the session. Space can easily exist to engage those who can do more, but many will either be reached by socialist class-consciousness through the easiest means, or not at all. This could make the difference between extending socialist influence to a mass base instead of mere circles.

Now as in the past, it is possible for socialists to organize in the labor movement while neglecting to build a socialist working class. Far from involving a burdensome juggling act, labor education projects can open the often closed door connecting to the world of organized workers. The new generation of tenants’ unions, largely anarchist and Marxist, tend to be volunteer-driven and highly flexible. Judging from the San Diego experience, socialists offering education programs will be limited mainly by their own energy, not by bureaucracy or prejudice.

The wide popular preference for socialism in polls of the last decade, and the earnest anti-capitalism hegemonic in segments of the academic-influenced Left, prime the union rank and file for our message.

Local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapters and other leftist collectives, even very small ones, have knowledge of theory and history as their main comparative advantage in the labor movement. It is natural that these groups seek to merge with the labor movement on that basis, adding their own educational branch to the movement division of labor. This will be most easily and productively done centered on implanted members of worker and tenant unions, from within those organizations. Rank and file opposition caucuses generally have less time and resources to spare, but a much greater openness and awareness of their need for ideological clarity. Conferences and local day-schools, like the educational video conferences put on by some DSA Labor Working Groups, can help cohere the local cross-union labor Left where sufficient connections exist. And such a local labor Left network, coordinating between different organizations, could at some point re-launch the workers’ schools of the last century.

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Avery Wear & James Boyle View All

Avery Wear is a social worker, socialist, and union activist. James Boyle is a machinist, electrician, and socialist. Both authors live in San Diego.