EDUCATION IN THE WORK PLACE: A BRIEF OVERVIEW
Robert A. Carlson
Let me indicate to you at the outset that I am something of a newcomer to the study, specifically, of the education of workers. I did touch on the subject from time to time in dealing with the history of Americanization. More recently, some vexing problems in my own work place prompted me to survey current research in this area in the hopes of finding some clues as to effective ways of handling our situation. This recent study and my reading for this conference of the abstracts of the presentations on worker education and related themes have convinced me that worker education must become a focus of my future research efforts. I believe this area is of major importance to us as adult educators who are rethinking current and past practice of our field. I suspect, as well, that this research area may have implications we could explore at future conferences regarding our own situations as "academic workers" committed to the values of adult education but working within old, often hierarchical and autocratic institutions oriented primarily to business interests and to the preservation of the status quo in society.
As I reviewed the abstracts, it seemed to me that I could provide a useful function at this point in the conference today by drawing together and interpreting some of the findings of the earlier papers, by bringing a few more key actors in worker education a bit closer to center stage (including employer, employer-supported private educator, and the government), and by setting what might be a helpful overall political context. With this set of purposes in mind, I revised my paper to attempt a somewhat broader effort than originally intended.
THE CONFERENCE PAPERS
In his presentation Wednesday Sean Courtney noted the deep interest in social integration that marked this century. He pointed to the influence of that Zeitgeist in and through the social sciences. Harold Stubblefield told us about two u.s. manifestations of the Danish Folk High Schools, both of which were associated with the values of social integration--either seeking to make people feel they were a meaningful part of the society or attempting to help people empower themselves to become, in fact, a meaningful part of the social structure. The Southern Summer School for Women Workers in Industry, described by Mary Frederickson, also seems to fit this pattern in some ways.
Michael Welton, Patrick Keane, and Gordon Selman added an international dimension to the concept of social integration via adult education. In describing the Antigonish Movement, Welton showed the. U.S.-shared Canadian aversion to the notion of inevitable conflict between capital and labor. Keane indicated that the international mechanics institute movement, too, "proclaimed community of interests between capital and labor. .." And Selman showed how the Liberal government that came to power in British Columbia in 1933 attempted to utilize "social planning" and adult education (governmental and private) in behalf of a "new social order," one that would bring all groups together in a happy, harmonious community.
What a difference from the Work People's College described by Richard Altenbaugh. If this College was truly a radical manifestation of adult education, one can understand the nervousness with which most adult educators in the U.S. and Canada might have viewed it, assuming they were aware of it or acknowledged it as an adult education organization. Work People's College, in seeking to create "a cadre of labor agitators" and in serving socialism and the Industrial Workers of the World, seemed to want to achieve "structural transformation," a goal Welton noted was unacceptable to many adult educators. This Duluth, Minnesota outfit would likely have been one of those early 20th century workers' movement institutions which Welton indicated were perceived as "dangerous and threatening to social order."
From the abstract it was hard to understand how the Work People's College could continue in its radical approach for two decades after what Rita Heller in her presentation identified as the beginning of "the American Workers' Education Movement" in 1921. Perhaps it is unfair for me to add one further word to her description of 1921 and to call it the beginning of the sanitized American workers' education movement. After all, the involvement of so prestigious an institution as Bryn Mawr College with its Quaker heritage of a deep commitment to peace could well help legitimize this sort of worker education to those who wanted cooperation, not conflict, between capital and labor. Bryn Mawr College and a school for workers may have been an "unnatural" coalition to Mary Beard. None the less, this was just the sort of social bridge, just the sort of "social integration," many in the progressive reform movement were working for in the early 20th century.
THE POLITICAL CONTEXT
A number of the so-called Progressives worried that the United States had gone off course. An increasingly urbanized and industrialized nation was straying from Jefferson's view of an America based on the yeoman farmer, on small agricultural holdings worked by the owners of those holdings. The Progressives viewed askance the rise of the new captains of industry--"robber barons," they called them. The appearance of this group in American life conflicted dramatically with Benjamin Franklin's plans for the nation as a "happy mediocrity," a happy and harmonious community.
In 1909 Herbert Croly articulated the Progressives' fear that the U.s. was at risk of becoming a class-divided society, the very antithesis of the purpose for which the republic was ostensibly established. "... The more intelligent and progressive American workingmen," he wrote, "are coming to believe that the American political and economic organization does not sufficiently secure the material improvement of the wage-earner." It bothered Croly that "the militant unionists are beginning to talk and believe as if they were at war with the existing social and political order--as if the American political system was as inimical to their interests as would be that of any European monarchy or aristocracy. . . "(1)
Croly's description of the problem went this way:
The large corporations and the unions occupy in certain respects a similar relation to the American political system. Their advocates both believe in associated action for themselves and in competition for their adversaries. They both demand governmental protection and recognition, but resent the notion of efficient governmental regulation. They have both reached their existing power, partly because of the weakness of the state governments, to which they are legally subject, and they both are opposed to any interference by the Federal government--except exclusively on their own behalf. Yet they both have become so very powerful that they are frequently too strong for the state governments: and in different ways they both traffic for their own benefit with the politicians, who so often control those governments. Here, of course, the parallelism ends and the divergence begins. The corporations have apparently the best of the situation, because existing institutions are more favorable to the interests of the corporations than to the interests of the unionists; but on the other hand, the unions have the immense advantage of a great and increasing numerical strength. They are beginning to use the suffrage to promote a class interest, though how far they will travel on this perilous path remains doubtful. In any event, it is obvious that the development in this country of two such powerful and unscrupulous and well-organized special interests has created a condition which the founders of the Republic never anticipated, and which demands as a counterpoise a more effective body of national opinion, and a more powerful organization of the national interest.(2)
Thus, did Croly characterize the situation of labor and capital in his day. Croly's Progressive counterpoise, indeed the Progressive solution, was to be the intervention of a reformed government as honest referee and broker between the two interests.
SOME OF THE OTHER ACTORS
In this role, government was soon to involve itself in worker education, also, often in indirect ways, by encouraging the educational efforts of the two protagonists. Experience in the state of Wisconsin would provide the forerunner in the United States of protective labor legislation, of expanded company welfare and safety programs, and of industrial management techniques that have become widespread.(3) With the Progressive wing of the Republican Party in control of the Wisconsin Statehouse and with the support of its friends in the social sciences, such as Professor John Commons of the University of Wisconsin, a new State Industrial Commission began by 1912 to enforce state industrial safety and sanitation regulations in Wisconsin. It was also the force that ensured implementation of a state workmen's compensation act that overcame some of the common law advantages previously enjoyed by capital over labor.
Managements of some of the larger companies, notably International Harvester which maintained an important operation in Milwaukee, had already put in place educational activities for their workers within voluntary welfare programs intended, at least in part, to win worker loyalty to the company and away from unions. The programs also had to be justified on the grounds that they would improve worker productivity. International Harvester, for example, decided on its own to provide workers with such services as pure drinking water, medical aid for those injured on the job, and recreation and education facilities, including schools for apprentices.
The companies also accepted outside assistance from private educators. International Harvester's central headquarters plant in Chicago was among factories accepting the offer of the YMCA to provide immigrant workers with English lessons. The YMCA became heavily involved for a time in such educational endeavors for workers in America's factories. Other private educational organizations that were invited into the factories by employers also became involved. These private educational groups were motivated by the desire to enhance social cohesion in the nation.(4)
Within the International Harvester home office in Chicago a significant internal struggle was fought early-on over the philosophy of education to prevail at Harvester. One of the combatants was Henry Bruere, a University of Chicago graduate recommended by John Dewey, who took a broad view of industrial education. He wanted to use it, according to Gerd Korman, in "serving the entire industrial community" and in "uplifting workers in general."(5) Among those on the other side of the struggle was Charles W. Price, a company functionary who informed himself about safety and welfare issues and was rewarded by appointment as supervisor of International Harvester's welfare program. Price subscribed to what Korman termed a philosophy "of welfare activities as a means of harmonizing the relations between capital and labor, but always on company terms."(6)
That philosophy did not bother the Progressive government of Wisconsin or John Commons. In 1912 the government hired Price on the recommendation of Commons to direct the welfare and safety enforcement program of its new Industrial Commission. Both Commons and the government wanted to create harmony between capital and labor. What better person than Price to convince the recalcitrant among businessmen of both the self-interest and the public interest of their cooperation with government in rationalizing working conditions for labor and thereby improving relations between management and labor!(7)
Progressive policy in Wisconsin was to enable government to intervene legally to regulate the work place should employer cooperation not be forthcoming. If the economic costs of accidents on the job were not clear enough, worker compensation decisions and penalties would bring the costs directly home to uncooperative employers. Woe to the employer experiencing an industrial accident involving an employee who had received no on-the-job safety instruction! One of the results was extensive expansion of employer safety education programs for workers.
Korman interpreted this and other aspects of what he called industry's "comprehensive welfare program" as "designed to develop company loyalty, employment stability, and harmonious relations with workers." The employer welfare and safety experts, he said, "working on behalf of their companies," had collaborated with the government's regulators. "Together they had. . . started to spin the web of rules and practices which made government agencies the partners of management in developing more sophisticated techniques for controlling the work force. "(8)
The one-sided nature of this cooperation by government during the Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover pro-business era of the 1920s eventually became discredited. By 1929 university professor Sumner Slichter, who had been one of the social scientists in support of Progressive policy earlier on, was complaining publicly about "The Current Labor Policies of American Industries."(9) Slichter worried that the results of the cooperative government-employer rationalization process had become "one of the most ambitious social experiments of the age" in which employers used their expanded welfare programs to encourage worker dependency, to discourage class consciousness, and to diminish worker interest in trade unionism.
In light of this critique, the New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s tended to tilt government more in the direction of labor. The Roosevelt administration established a labor education program in 1933 under the direction of Hilda Smith from Bryn Mawr College. In 1934 and 1935 she administered the federally-supported teacher training centers, as Joyce Kornbluh indicated, with labor-oriented content and materials. This program was soon absorbed by the WPA's Workers Service Project, an educational service to labor that continued until 1942.
That same year the ubiquitous Hilda Smith launched a campaign to get Congress to establish a National Labor Extension Service. The proposed organization was to provide educational services for unions as the agricultural extension service provided educational services for farmers. Her efforts failed, not because of the politicians in Washington but because of the concerns of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
The AFL thought the agricultural extension model put too much control of labor education in the hands of the state universities. It preferred to maintain its labor education under its own control in order to educate on its own terms, a point of view paralleling the employer attitude toward control of such programs expressed earlier by International Harvester. The AFL wanted any labor extension service to supply only "research and the materials so that unions could start their own educational classes." It wanted to prevent what it imagined to be the radical influences of the universities from being exerted on its members. Indeed, the AFL's education committee included some influential members who seemed to hold political biases in tune with right-wing employer groups. "The Hilda Smith proposal," one of the education committee members wrote, "foreshadows education as she did it under WP A . . . when so many 'Commies' found jobs as teachers."(10)
The AFL refused to join other union groups in endorsing the Smith proposal. By the end of 1950 the bill was dead. For the unions, this failed effort seems to have marked the high water level of government interest in supporting labor education.
In more recent years, of course, a neo-conservatism has taken power in Washington. With Ronald Reagan's political attack that broke the air traffic controllers' union, an era more akin to the Harding-Coolidge-Hoover period seems to be in sway. And it would be interesting to analyze the degree to which government, labor unions, and business are currently cooperating in worker education in behalf of social integration, the American tradition of worker education since the Progressive Era.
1. Herbert Croly, The Promise of American Life (New York: Macmillan, 1909), 128, 130.
2. Ibid., 130, 131.
3. See Gerd Korman, Industrialization, Immigrants and Americanizers: The View from Milwaukee, 1866-1921 (Madison, Wisc.: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1967), for an outstanding description and analysis of the Wisconsin situation. I am indebted to him for much of the detail on the Wisconsin situation, on International Harvester's activities in welfare and safety education, and for his excellent historical interpretations that are noted in the text.
4. See Robert A. Carlson, The Americanization Syndrome: A Quest for Conformity (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987), Chapters 7 and 8.
5. Korman, Industrialization, Immigrants and Americanizers, 95.
6. Ibid., 107.
7. Ibid., 88, 116-20. 8. Ibid., 199, 200.
9. Sumner Slichter, "The Current Labor Policies of American Industries," Quarterly Journal of Economics 43 (May 1929): 432-35; cited by Korman, 193.
10. Author unknown, unpublished manuscript submitted to Adult Education, circa 1978. Research financed by a grant from the Rutgers Research Council. This article provided the source of data regarding the attempt to establish a National Labor Extension Service.