Labor Education: Uneasy Beginnings

Here come a wind

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 4 No. 1/2, "Here Come a Wind." Find more from that issue here.

In most Western industrial countries, programs for the education of workers as workers were developed along with, and supported by, other workers' institutions: unions, political parties, and cooperatives. Their primary purpose was the reform of society, and they saw education as an important means to this end as well as a way of training workers to take responsibility within their own organizations. 

The United States was different. The dominant trade union body prior to World War I, the American Federation of Labor, consciously kept itself apart from the movement for social reform because it feared that such involvement would weaken the unions' goal: increasing immediate benefits for workers through collective bargaining with employers. However, the national unions which composed the AFL maintained their autonomy and some opposed AFL policies regarding education for workers. 

The Socialist unions in particular, like the Europeans, stressed the importance of education for providing a broader understanding of society and the workers' role in its change. Support for workers' education prior to World War I came from two other groups, both outside unions: (1) prominent educators who felt that opportunities for workers were critical in any system of education; and (2) individuals, many of them women, sympathetic to the goals of both unionism and social reform. 

Meanwhile, the majority of unions felt that experience was the best teacher for the day-to-day union tasks, and that classes for workers might become an avenue for furthering opposition to the AFL. In addition, many unionists who had supported the expansion of free public education believed that the American school system, more broadly based and open than in Europe, would give workers the education needed to function effectively in society. 

Thus, the labor education that emerged in the formative period of American unionism developed outside the official union movement, in many cases by opponents of AFL national policy, and with little relation to the day-to-day problems of trade union activity. 


The first classes set up for workers as unionists were probably those conducted in 1913 by the Women's Trade Union League, an organization formed in 1903 by women workers and other women concerned with the working conditions of their sex. 

The first union education departments were established by the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union in 1916 and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in 1919. Both unions were concentrated in New York City and had previously participated in the educational programs of the Rand School of Social Science founded in 1906 by Socialists. Educational programs conducted by these unions continued to emphasize social issues and individual cultural advancement. 

During World War I, the AFL grew rapidly and enjoyed a close relationship with the reform-minded Wilson administration. A new wave of worker activity was reflected in major organizing campaigns, in the formation of a large number of local labor parties, and in the AFL's adoption at its 1919 convention of a "Reconstruction Program" dealing with a wide variety of social programs. 

Labor education flourished in this favorable climate. In some areas, it took the form of local "labor colleges" sponsored by central labor unions, using sympathetic faculty from nearby schools as teachers. The classes were usually held in the evening and were concerned primarily with increasing the social consciousness of the workers rather than training in the skills of unionism. By 1922, an estimated 75 such programs were in operation. In 1920, the University of California at Berkeley, in cooperation with the state federation of labor, created the first university labor extension program. 

The local efforts attracted a large number of persons not directly involved in unionism who were concerned with social problems and, in particular, the well-being of workers. Support from such people and from unionists led to the founding in 1921 of Brookwood, in Westchester County, New York, as the first permanent resident labor school in the US. Brookwood offered a two-year program combining general education with training for union activity. In the same year Bryn Mawr, a women's college in the suburbs of Philadelphia, experimented with an eight-week summer session for 100 women workers, setting a pattern which was to be followed in later years by other colleges and universities. While Brookwood and the women's summer schools were set up independently of the labor movement, they drew support from many national unions, central labor bodies and individual unionists. 

Even when union strength began to decline in the post-war depression, most local labor colleges persevered and the number of independent labor education agencies, particularly residential schools, actually increased. Other colleges joined Bryn Mawr in sponsoring summer schools for women workers. The school at the University of Wisconsin became co-educational at the request of the state federation of labor, and it has continued to serve as a labor education center since 1925. The moving spirit in the Bryn Mawr women's summer school established a year-round institution, Vineyard Shore, in upstate New York. A new resident school, Commonwealth, was set up in 1923 in Arkansas. Brookwood continued, shifting from a two-year program to one year. The University of California labor extension activity was maintained, and in 1923 the National University Extension Association endorsed co-operation in labor programs and appointed a committee on workers' education. 

With the decline of the 1920s, unions representing nearly a third of the AFL's membership questioned that body's policies toward craft versus industrial unionism, organizing initiatives, and political activity. Workers' education classes discussed these controversial issues and were generally led by those opposed to the AFL's policies. Sensitive to developing opposition, the AFL took over the funding of the Workers Education Bureau which had been formed in 1921 as a coordinating mechanism for labor education activists. By 1929, the WEB had in effect become the educational arm of the AFL (although it was not formally recognized as such until 1954), and its programs and publications were strictly censored by the AFL hierarchy. 

The AFL leaders' general suspicion of labor education turned to opposition when the 1928 convention approved an executive council attack on Brookwood as a radical institution. The council urged that all AFL affiliates withdraw their support from the school. This was a cause celibre at the time; significantly, many AFL unions continued to support the school and send students to it. Furthermore, it was not the unions but concerned individuals who had been the prime source of funds for Brookwood, the women's summer schools, Commonwealth, and later. Highlander Folk School. 

The Depression had a greater impact on the future of these independent organizations than did the disapproval of the AFL. Many could not establish the financial base to continue into the late 1930s and '40s. Brookwood lasted until 1937. The number of independent summer schools declined, and in the end only Bryn Mawr survived at its new location at Vineyard Shore. The coordinating organization of summer schools, the Affiliated Schools for Workers, continued through the period, becoming a program operating agency and changing its name to the American Labor Education Service. 



Roosevelt's New Deal and the founding of the CIO in 1936 signaled a period of increased union strength. At the same time, the Depression forced even conservative unionists in the AF L to recognize the importance of social reform and the need to press for social legislation. 

The rapid growth of unions in the late 1930s created a need for training in the practical aspects of day-to-day union work—especially in the newly organized mass-production unions which depended on volunteer activists for local officers and negotiators. Unions like those in the garment industries, which had supported labor education in the past, expanded their programs and shifted from broad social education to the training of thousands of new local union leaders. Labor education thus became training for trade-union service, and much more of it was carried on by the unions themselves. 

Stronger unions had more money as well as greater needs. The unions wanted more direct help for immediate problems and those independent agencies that continued through this period changed their format to accommodate this need. The summer school at the Univ. of Wisconsin School for Workers became a series of one-week sessions sponsored by local unions. When Bryn Mawr became Hudson Shore in 1939, the general summer school became shorter and special programs for individual unions increased in importance. The American Labor Education Service and the Southern Summer School for Women Workers undertook similar changes in format. 

It should be noted, however, that the independent labor education organizations always maintained an interest in broader social issues such as civil rights and international affairs. They provided leadership and a source of experimentation in areas of social concern, teaching methods and the use of new materials. 

During the early New Deal, the federal government became a supporter, for the first time, of workers' education through adult education programs financed by relief funds. Between 1933 and 1943, the WPA workers' education classes reached one million people in 36 states, including most of those where unionism was growing. Unemployed teachers taught students from unions and the unemployed societies in subjects ranging from literacy to creative arts. Many of the administrators had backgrounds in labor education, and advisory committees with trade unionist representatives related the program to labor's needs. 

Immediately after World War II, the growing strength of the unions and the experiences with the WPA workers' classes created a demand for government support of labor education similar to that provided farmers through agricultural extension. The wave of post-war strikes focused attention on the problems of collective bargaining, leading some students of unionism and some legislators to feel that education might improve the possibilities for industrial peace. Between 1944 and 1947, the Department of Labor set up a small program, chiefly for classes in contract administration. Universities received impetus to sponsor similar programs designed to increase workermanagement harmony. 



There were four developments in labor education in the period immediately after World War II. Unions expanded their activities; universities, particularly those that were state-supported, began to offer more programs; Catholic labor education rose and fell; and the independent schools almost disappeared. 

Union programs grew in number and sophistication. But those national unions that supported education were still a minority. Both national labor federations expanded their activities: the CIO, by conducting programs directly; the AFL, by encouraging labor education and assisting unions and central bodies. But the work of the federations remained limited compared with that of the national unions. Any major national union program would reach more workers and offer greater variety than that offered by the affiliated federation. 

The post-war interest in university labor education was a reflection of three factors: the growing strength of unionism; the belief among some educators and many unionists that the government should sponsor educational service to workers, as state-supported schools did for other groups; and, finally, the feeling that university programs might contribute to industrial peace. Whatever the motivation, an increasing number of colleges began to provide a labor education service, often in conjunction with an industrial relations center. But in the South, where unions had established only a precarious foothold, no university was bold enough to move into the labor education arena. 

In general, unions welcomed the expansion of university activity once a procedure for consultation had been established to assuage fears that business interests would control the programs or that the faculty was unrealistic about unionism. The fears of business control were aggravated in 1948 when an attack by the auto industry ended an experimental workers' education program at the University of Michigan. The attack was part of a successful effort to prevent federal financing for university labor education. But the Michigan example was not followed in other states. The number of programs ballooned, and less than ten years after its early project had been stopped, the Univ. of Michigan began a new one. 

Catholic priests had long conducted labor classes following the concepts set forth in papal encyclicals on social problems. In the mid-1940s, the Catholic programs expanded rapidly and were soon operating in most major cities, providing a combination of trade-union training and ideological instruction. In part, the latter was an effort to counteract the influence of Communist unionists. Particularly where unions did not conduct classes, the Catholic schools filled the vacuum left by the termination of the WPA. Catholic labor education continued on a large scale into the early 1950s and then began to decline. 

While university and union programs grew, the independent labor education agencies waned. They were unable to secure a financial base in the unions, among individuals or in the foundations which would allow them to continue. When the Rosenwald funds were exhausted, the Georgia Workers' Education Service ended. Highlander shifted from labor education to civil rights, partly over disagreements with union policy. The American Labor Education Service was the last of the independent agencies to liquidate. Its final programs were financed chiefly by grants from the Fund for Adult Education. Since then, foundation grants have largely gone to university labor centers. 



Since the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, the proportion of total employment in fields where unions were traditionally strong has declined, while the number of workers in white-collar jobs, the service industries, and state and local government has risen steadily. Union membership has only slightly fallen, however, as these new workers gain representation. 

Many of the rapidly growing unions of government workers have established education departments to meet the needs of local activists, not unlike the needs of the mass-production unions in the early New Deal. In addition, some unions that had been hostile to labor education began to develop activity, especially in staff training. In part, this reflected a generational turnover among union leaders; in part, the increasing complexity of union work. 

At the same time, the number of university labor centers climbed until they now exist in almost every industrial state. Both in unions and colleges, education programs on general social problems expanded to meet the increasing involvement of unions in legislative and political activity. On the other hand, technical training has become broader and more sophisticated in order to develop expertise among the leadership of locals. 

Today, labor education is organized in two forms: in the unions and in the universities. The result is fragmented institutionalization. Each national union and each school set up their own program in accordance with their own priorities and with little coordination. The independent workers' education centers and summer schools have all but disappeared.