The more things change…

As a parent of two Chicago Public Schools 4th graders, I’ve had a crash course this year in urban austerity.  Teachers are trying their best, but with 31 students per class, the school library effectively closed, and district mandated testing, it’s an uphill battle.  Meanwhile the district closed 50 schools outright last year citing low enrollment, but is likely to approve 30 new charter schools for next year (despite many charters being under-enrolled).  So I got a chuckle when I came across the following from the November 1924 edition the Industrial Pioneer (p. 28), which should be filed under “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

No Refinement for Robots

The school system is supposed to be the bulwark of the republic, and, up to now, it has been certainly a bulwark of capitalism.  The little children marched the goose step and swallowed the pills of prejudice and patriotism without any objection from them or their parents.  And in general, capitalism considered money spent on “education” to be well spent, and in the interests of public order, their order.

Something is happening now, though just why is not so clear.  The capitalist class is sabotaging education. We have before us a statement by the teachers’ unions of Chicago, which is a protest against the proposal of the Czaristic superintendent of schools here to fire about a thousand teachers, cut down the hours slightly, use a two-shift-a-day system, use the “platoon” or factory system of instruction, and abolish a part of the medical inspection of children.

The excuse given for all of this curtailment in effective education is “poverty,” “no money in the school fund.” The teachers counter this by figures to prove that forty billion dollars’ worth of property in Chicago escapes taxation altogether, while only four billion dollars’ worth of property is taxed.

Well, that is another problem. What we are interested in is: why is it that these capitalists do not raise the money? If they felt it necessary to maintain schools, they could raise the cash some other way than by taxation. Or they would submit to an infinitesimal tax on the forty billion dollars’ worth now escaping taxation.

Does this phenomenon mean that the capitalist class, in its second or third generation, is so degenerate that it can no longer act in its own interest? Or does it mean that capitalism has decided that there is danger in even such a slight education as it has been affording the children of the proletariat, and that it has decided to cut down on that?

The austerity we’re seeing in K-12 and in higher education begs the same question, although these days we don’t use the phrase “capitalist class” in polite company.  We might rephrase the question: have business leaders given up on mass education as anything other than a market?

In any case, the title of the piece is a reference to a line in Karel Capek’s play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots): “A working machine must not play the piano, must not feel happy, must not do a whole lot of things.” Indeed.

Posted in Document, History, Labor, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Five Ideas for Digital Labor History

This article originally appeared on January 9, 2014 in LaborOnline.

Over the last two decades, digital technologies have transformed practically every aspect of historians’ professional lives. When I entered graduate school in the 1990s, there were still professors who wrote articles out by hand, and then turned over stacks of legal pads to the departmental secretaries to key into computers. In the archives we took notes with paper and pencil and made as many photocopies as we could afford. Today, laptops have displaced the office staff, most archives allow personal digital cameras, and we leave the archives with hundreds of JPEG files instead of note cards.

But what comes next? As Joe Hill might say: don’t mourn the loss of analog history, organize the digital future. In this post, I suggest some possible digital futures for our research, teaching and communication. Using tools and research practices associated with the field of “digital humanities” (or “digital history,” if you prefer), labor historians can expand the influence of our research and teaching in the digital public sphere, and collaborate with audiences beyond the academy.

Digital Humanities is a growing approach to research and teaching with its own journals (online only, naturally), an NEH grant category all its own, and a growing number of academic programs with dedicated faculty positions. Typically digital humanities programs bring together scholars from traditional humanistic disciplines (e.g., literature and history) with those from design, communications, and library and information studies. These scholars tend to coalesce around an interest in digital media and media history, technical research & publishing practices, and the application of digital technologies to analog (particularly historical, archival) content.

Labor and social historians have been active in digital history, particularly in the use of the web to present historical sources and narratives. Among those who will be familiar to the readers of LaborOnline are the late Roy Rosenzweig (founder, Center for History and New Media), Steve Brier and Joshua Brown (American Social History Project), Janice Reiff (author of a manual on history computing and editor of the online Encyclopedia of Chicago), Kathryn Sklar and Tom Dublin (Women and Social Movements website), and James Gregory (Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights History Project).

But Social History generally, and Labor History specifically have not been closely associated with Digital Humanities as it has emerged in recent years. The reasons for this are complex, but in any case I think this is a lost opportunity for both fields. For those Digital Humanists who aspire to make their scholarship more relevant to nonacademic audiences, Labor History has an outstanding record of public scholarship and a variety of existing public networks. Digital Humanities brings librarians and archivists into dialogue with scholars in ways that echo the many oral and community history projects that labor historians have championed over the years. Meanwhile, as the initial hype about the digital millennium subsides, there is a growing interest among digital humanists in questions of labor in digital production. Whether we call ourselves digital humanists, digital historians, or just skip the labels and get to work, I think labor historians can make a huge contribution to this growing field.

Here are five suggestions, by no means exhaustive of the possibilities, for Labor Historians to make use of digital tools in teaching and research.

1. Laboring Wikipedia

Students, journalists, ordinary people, and even professors regularly use Wikipedia as a source of basic information. But relatively few of us contribute to Wikipedia or understand how its content is created and vetted. Put simply, a “wiki” is a digital platform for collaborative writing that changes as users add, edit or delete content and links. The English language Wikipedia has over 4 million articles. There are a number of active editors who focus on labor and radical topics, and there is an Organized Labour Portal that organizes work on the topic. But there is room for improvement when it comes to labor and social justice topics.

Recently I assigned a Wikipedia contribution, rather than a term paper, to my upper-division U.S. labor history course at UCLA. The experience was not without complications, but it was successful enough for me to recommend it to others (a more complete account is on my blog). Among the virtues of writing for Wikipedia: students must comply with Wikipedia’s well-established and clearly articulated sourcing and editing standards, and their work is subjected to the lens of Wikipedia editors who are well versed in the varieties of unintended copying and outright plagiarism student-writers sometimes commit. The reward for those students who truly embrace the assignment: having their work published on a world-readable platform used by millions everyday!

With the development of a major outreach program by the Wikimedia Foundation, assigning a Wikipedia contribution in one of your courses is much, much easier than it was a few years ago. In addition to a new class of volunteer editors known as campus and regional “Ambassadors” who can help instructors, Wikipedia now has a system for hosting courses, resources for training students, and systematically reviewing contributions. LAWCHA might want to sponsor an international day of Laboring Wikipedia on the model of the Global Women Wikipedia Write-In during which libraries and cafes hosted collective write-ins.

2. Liberate Public Domain, Orphaned, and Radical Texts

Anyone who has used GoogleBooks knows the frustration of clicking on an interesting book title only to find it inaccessible. Google and the university-oriented HathiTrust Digital Library defensively block access to many items simply because they were published after the easy-to-recognize cut off for public domain copyright status. US copyright law dictates that virtually anything published before 1923, and everything published by the federal government, is in the public domain. Also, books published between 1923 and 1963 are in the public domain unless their copyright holders renewed the copyright (there is an online database of renewed copyrights). A concerted effort by scholars could encourage the library partners of the HathiTrust to open many of these books, periodicals and pamphlets that languish behind the digital curtain. Last year I noticed the American Labor Who’s Who (1925) had been scanned but was not accessible. Through my university library’s copyright office I made a request to open up the text for research purposes, which was quickly granted. You also can make requests directly to the HathiTrust Digital Library through the “Feedback” link at the bottom of each catalog record. I recently requested the liberation of the IWW’s monthly magazine Industrial Pioneer. My request is still under review. I’ll let you know what happens. (Update: two additional volumes are now open access.)

Here are a few other examples of labor periodicals that are currently inaccessible despite having been scanned:

The Journal of Electrical Workers and Operators (IBEW)

The Workers’ Monthly (CPUSA)

A 1939 union-published retrospective on the Amalgamated Clothing Workers by J.B.S. Hardman.

And there are plenty more, including the proceedings of annual conventions of the Steelworkers, the ILWU and the UAW (all behind the digital curtain). Wouldn’t these unions like to have their historical record freely accessible to their members, scholars and students? We as labor historians could organize a systematic effort to identify publications in need of liberation, then work with the organizations (if they exist) to grant permission to HathiTrust to open up access. As an added bonus, when these texts become freely available they help support more labor content on Wikipedia.

3. Mining Digital Texts

Liberating digitized books is a first step to really digging into them with digital tools. These books often contain a wealth of biographical, organizational, geographic, and visual information. In addition to reading these texts in a traditional sense, we can use them as data for mapping and visualizations. There are a number of free (or low-cost) programs for mapping and charting this kind of data. Among the free mapping systems, Google Maps and Google Fusion Tables, are relatively easy to use, but are limited. A mapping tool with more flexibility, but a steeper learning curve, is GeoCommons. Another free, online visualization tool is Raw, which allows you to create a variety of chart types. These are just a few of the relatively easy to use tools. If you want to put in more time, there are many more possibilities.

In the case of the American Labor Who’s Who, I was able to extract the text and, with the help of staff in the UCLA Library and Center for Digital Humanities, to clean and parse the text into a spreadsheet. I then converted the Who’s Who text into a specialized type of wiki and posted it online ( This conversion of text to database is far from complete or perfect, and it was time-consuming. But it has opened up the Who’s Who to types of analysis that were nearly impossible in its analog form, for instance maps of labor leaders’ birthplaces and 1925 work addresses–note the transatlantic migration–created with Google FusionTables.

We also might use digital tools to examine some of the many movement texts that are already online and freely available, for instance the Samuel Gompers Papers, the Early American Marxism website or the Chicago Foreign Language Press Survey. Born-digital information, like the discussion logs for H-Labor, would make another great subject of analysis. Currently, you can browse the H-Labor lists by date. But imagine a more fully searchable system so that we don’t need to ask the same questions over and over again. Graduate students might even benefit from analyzing the development of the field through the shifting interests of H-Labor posts (or of all H-Net posts for that matter).

4. Social Media for Scholarly and Popular Communication

Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook are, for better or worse, now regular features of the scholarly communication cycle. Not only do scholars post announcements of their work, but we use social media like a version of conversations that take place at conferences or over coffee. These conversations typically don’t count as “scholarship,” and rarely show up in publications, but they are a key way we develop and test our analyses. As with Wikipedia, professional historians are often not the ones posting historical content on social media. For instance, the Facebook group “Labor History” has nearly 4,000 members, including union members, staff, and professional historians. Being active on social media is a good way to engage public debates about labor and social policies that impact working people. LAWCHA and LaborOnline could play a bigger role in curating these communities by encouraging members to “like” or “follow” the organizations, stimulating debate online, or generating and circulating useful tags. Of course, this can be a lot of work so there needs to be an organizational commitment. But we can also leverage the voluntary activity of the broader labor history community. One key truism of social networks is that most of the content is created by a few highly active users. Are there any LAWCHA members who are “super users” of social media? You know who you are.

A potential problem, and opportunity for LAWCHA, is social media fatigue and fragmentation. As these platforms proliferate, and compete for our time and attention, it can get harder to follow everything we want to follow. We might use LaborOnline (or its social media accounts) to aggregate these information flows, and then present them in a more digested (or “curated”) fashion. Digital humanities does this through the online “journal” Digital Humanities Now, which is like a blog with volunteer editors who find content online and post links. Among the benefit of this type of activity are that it helps create community, and provides an automatic archive of links for future reference.

5. Social Media for Research

Facebook and Twitter are not just for wasting time; they are also good for research. A recent poll from the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that almost three-quarters of adult who use the internet regularly use social networks. There were some significant variations across platforms, with African Americans and Latinos more over-represented among Twitter and Instagram users. Recently, some union campaigns have used Facebook groups to reach out to workers, and workers have developed their own Facebook groups as part of the campaigns. Facebook and other platforms provide a specialized interfaces (known as an Application Programmer Interface, or API) that allows a researcher to extract the content of these groups (if the groups are public or the researcher is a member). Or, we could do this on Twitter: identify hashtags and users associated with unions and social movements, extract a retrospective archive, and see how these developed over time. The Occupy movement even has a website to encourage research (OccupyResearch). You may need to check with your university’s Institutional Review Board, since this research includes living human beings, rather than long gone historical characters.

In the many forms of social media, we can also see a big piece of the archive for future historians of everyday life and contemporary social movements. The time is now to collect and preserve this digital record. Major strikes and campaigns in recent years have created an increasing volume of digital ephemera (think of the Writers Guild Strike, Occupy Wall Street, the CTU Strike, or the DREAM Act initiative). In the old days, archivists collected flyers and broadsides. Now they have to collect online (see for example the Tamiment Library’s Web Archive project). University based historians should encourage archivists to preserve these collections, while historically minded activists can do their part too by preserving their digital communications. The problems are daunting: if you’ve been in a union staff meeting lately you know that instant messaging and emails are typical forms of communication. How much of this stuff will unions want to preserve, if any? It would be great to have a dialog between archivists, activists and historians about the scope of future digital archives, and how we can ensure that future generations will be able to access the history of contemporary movements for social and economic justice.

* * *

These are just five ideas among many possibilities. If you already doing some of this, tell us about it in the comments. Likewise, if you hate the idea of digital history, let ‘er rip (in a polite collegial tone, of course).

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Laboring Wikipedia

Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Work with Wikipedia

Wikipedia Organized Labour Portal

Wikipedia Organized Labour Portal

Last spring I finally made the leap.  Like many other college instructors, I’ve found the traditional term paper a less-than-inspiring exercise.  Students, infamously, do not read a professor’s comments unless a rewrite is required, and even then many will simply want to know “what do I need to do to get an A” or whatever target grade they need.  It’s hard to blame them.  In a big lecture class, they know that theirs is but one of 70, 80, maybe 150 papers that the instructor (or a graduate student grader) is wading through.

So I bit the bullet, chucked the term paper, and assigned a Wikipedia contribution in my upper division labor history lecture with 85 students.  It was a wild ride, but in the end it was successful enough that I want to do it again.  Since a number of colleagues have asked, and for my own planning, I’m posting some notes on the experience.  If you have more questions or feedback, feel free to comment or email.

The Rationale:  Beyond the desire to escape the negatives of traditional papers, Wikipedia has a number of positive attributes that make it a useful environment for learning about writing, research, and the circulation of knowledge in the digital public sphere.  Wikipedia is now over a decade old and claims over 4.2 million articles in the English language version alone. For better or worse, it is a common research tool for students, the general public, and even (gasp) professors.  Although nothing in the digital realm last forever, the time is long past when we can imagine it as a fad.  Like JStor and GoogleBooks, Wikipedia is part of the instructional ecosystem. The only question is whether students will learn to use it appropriately.

Given the pervasive use of Wikipedia as a basic information source by students, journalists and the public at large, professional historians in general ought to be more engaged with the platform. All the more so for Labor Historians because topics in our field, and related social justice topics, are not consistently represented despite the efforts of a number of very active individual editors. There are significant, and sometimes surprising, gaps in the topics represented and quality of existing articles.  When I was preparing my Wikipedia course assignment I developed a 3 page list of  Articles to Add or Improve.  Most of these now have much more material, but there is still plenty of room for improvement.

One reason topics like these are less well-represented than, say, detailed histories of automobile models, is the demographics of the Wikipedia editor corps. Research by the Wikimedia Foundation found that 90% of Wikipedia editors were male.  In response, feminist activists organized an international edit-a-thon that aimed to improve the quality and visibility of women’s studies topics on Wikipedia, and also to encourage women to become familiar with Wikipedia and join the ranks of editors. Similarly, WP editors are overwhelming from northern hemispheric, industrialized countries, and some post-colonial scholars are promoting the active participation from the global south.  In terms of gender representation, almost any college course is substantially more representative than is typical of Wikipedia editors. And many college courses will include greater proportions of African Americans, immigrants, and non-US citizens, not to mention low and moderate income people, than is typical of Wikipedia editors.  So by turning our students into information producers rather than mere consumers, we can participate in the diversification of one of the most widely-read publications in the world.

Preparing Yourself & Your Students: Writing for Wikipedia is an experience quite unlike writing a term paper.  You and your students will have to unlearn certain habits, especially the strong desire to do all assignments at the last moment.  Instructors, too, will have to overcome the desire to “wing it.” If you’re working with Wikipedia you are automatically working in collaboration, and good collaboration means planning ahead.

For my fellow college instructors, here is a quick-start guide:

  1. If you’re not registered yet, get yourself a user account right now and start making little edits.  Users get heightened scrutiny from editors right after they are created, so it’s good to have a track record to let editors know you’re not a vandal.
  2. Check out the extensive training materials for instructors and students, and heed some of the suggestions for building the Wikipedia assignment into your entire course, not just something at the end.  You might want to read Amanda Seligman’s useful essay Teaching Wikipedia Without Apologies, or  Wiki Writing: Collaborative Learning in the College Classroom (both free online).
  3. Find a campus or regional Ambassador who can help you locate volunteer editors who might want to help out.
  4. Change your syllabus because, to repeat, this works best if you integrate the Wikipedia assignment (including mastering the guidelines, training in editing, etc.) into the entire life of your course.
  5. Register your course, and create a course page that each student signs up to.

Wikipedia is a highly developed collaborative community with well-articulated standards that are often mystifying to newcomers.  In case you’re completely unaware of the phenomenon, a “wiki” is a collaborative writing platform that develops over time as users add, change and delete information, pages and links. Any user can edit any page without prior permission, although in practice there are limits.  The system saves every version of every page (along with the name or IP address of the editor, and the time the edits were made).  You can compare any two versions, and easily revert to previously saved versions.  This should be a recipe for chaos, but cadres of (mostly) volunteer editors police Wikipedia watching for vandalism, plagiarism and copyright violations, and other transgressions of the system’s editing standards.

In my experience three Wikipedia editing concepts were especially confusing for students:  Neutral Point of View (NPOV), the prohibition on “original research,” and standards of “notibility” for entries.  The rationale for each goes back to the fact that Wikipedia is a reference work that is intended to distill established knowledge found in other sources.  Surprisingly few college students fully comprehend the utility of a good library reference room, perhaps because they are used to Googling their research questions.  Writing for Wikipedia forces students to come to terms with the relationship between reference, interpretation, and primary sources–distinctions that have been flattened out with the mass digitization of books and archives.

At the top of the Wikipedia list of concepts is Neutral Point of View (NPOV) which Wikipedia defines as writing “fairly, proportionately, and, as far as possible, without bias” on a topic representing all the views that have been presented in “published by reliable sources.”  This should be No Big Deal.  However, students have become so familiar with the thesis-driven essay that they often have a hard time understanding neutrality.  Does it mean you cannot right about controversial topics?  Does it mean all interpretations, no matter how marginal, need equal space?  Not at all. But it does require a different tone and approach to content.

The ban on original research, likewise, tends to confuse students (especially the better ones) who are eager to pursue a topic to its ends.  But the rationale for this policy makes sense in the context of community verification.  We can’t expect volunteer editors to follow up original archival research, so evidence in Wikipedia has to come from widely available sources.  Luckily, Wikipedia’s standards for reliability are not too far off those of university professors, including scholarship in peer-reviewed journals, university press books, and mainstream news outlets.

Finally, “notability” is often a problem when it comes to labor and social movement topics. In an effort to limit the proliferation of entries in trivial topics, Wikipedia requires topics with their own pages to be “notable“–mentioned in some reliable published source.  This is fine, except that some important labor topics are most widely covered in movement sources (like party or union newspapers).  Some self-appointed watchdogs of Wikipedia will object to these sources as insufficiently neutral, or will complain that “not every little strike” deserves its own page. You students may need to find a larger topic in which their smaller event or person falls.  But in general, if at least two published sources refer to the event or person, a page is justifiable.  For U.S. labor topics of the 19th and early 20th century, especially biographies of activists, the American Labor Who’s Who often gets you half way to notability.

Recently, Wikipedia added a system for hosting courses and student assignments, and extensive resources that lay out detailed suggestions for structuring your course around Wikipedia.  There is even a visual editor that frees new users from having to master arcane wiki markup code. This is a huge help for instructors. The first time I tried editing with students (back in 2007), the contribution was deleted almost immediately.  This still happens all the time, but if you work through the course hosting system, student contributions will go through a formal vetting process before they are released into the public Wikipedia, or given an explanation of why their contribution doesn’t fly.

The Student Experience:  In my course, students could edit as individuals or in groups.  I provided a long list of entries that needed to be created or needed significant improvement.  Students who wanted to do something not on the list had to give me a good explanation why, and not many did.

As expected, students who took the assignment seriously and learned the editing system ahead of time, did well.  Students who waited until the last minute crashed and burned.  The ratio of engaged-to-oblivious students was not unlike a regular term paper assignment, maybe a little better.  Students who thought they might get away with overzealous copying (i.e., plagiarism) found themselves called out by volunteer Wikipedia editors who quickly found the original sources.  Students who were serious, got pointers from editors about formatting and linking to other articles.

In general, students found the work much more detail oriented than they are used to in a regular paper.  It’s harder to be lazy on Wikipedia than it is in a traditional paper.  Volunteer editors confronted students with requests for sourcing for assertions they thought were “facts,” which drove students back to the library reference room to fact-check their own work.  Although I don’t have any systematic evidence, I think many students took feedback from Wikipedia editors more seriously than they would a professor’s because it was more consequential.  Getting published on Wikipedia was more of a prize than a slight change in grade.  On evaluations, a common refrain was that the assignment was difficult, but “cool” (as quoted in the student newspaper) because their work was live for the world to read.

Among the pages  my student created last spring (although most have some changes since last spring) are those for Ernest Riebe, Oscar Ameringer, the United Canary, Agricultural, Packinghouse and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), and the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU).  If I’m not mistaken, Ameringer and Riebe were new pages and the other two were major expansions of existing pages.  Links to all the student pages are available via the class portal.  (Note, most of my students editing took place in late May to early June 2013, if you want to look at the page histories).

Changes for Next Time: As a first big leap into Wikipedia for course assignments, I was satisfied with my experience. But I will make some significant changes in the future.  The biggest lesson learned was how complex and multifaceted the assignment is.  In future I will cut down on other assignments, and more closely tailor the entire class to writing on Wikipedia (as the tutorials for instructors suggest, but of course I ignored because I thought I was special).  Group work was surprisingly successful and I will lean toward group editing in future especially in larger classes, not least because it cuts down on the volume of individual hand-holding.  Also, given that the number of truly “missing” articles is getting smaller, I will focus student work on improving and expanding existing articles or sets of articles, particularly articles considered important by organized editing groups like the Organized Labour Portal.  The goal here would be to get an article in shape so that it can be featured on on the Portal.

A Few Words about Expertise in the Wikipedia Community:  As I mentioned, labor and social justice topics are not consistently represented on Wikipedia, however, there are individual editors improving the situation every day, literally.  Some of these editors, like Tim Davenport who edits as “Carrite” and runs the site, are prolific and hugely knowledgeable. In addition, the Organized Labour Portal and WikiProject Organized Labour coordinate work on the topic.  That said, not all established Wikpedia editors are friendly to labor and radical topics, and probably a larger group are simply indifferent.  You may encounter less than civil interactions from these self-appointed experts, despite long-established rules for civility.  Professional historians and graduate students venturing into the Wikipedia world for the first time should pause to consider that university credentials do not automatically grant you expert status.  This is a well-developed system with its own norms for tone, sourcing, and relevance.  It is also a community with many different personalities. All of this deserves respect, especially at first.  So give yourself some time to get familiar with the system, and develop your own track record of editing before diving in with your students.

Questions, comments? If I’ve left something out send me an email, or use the comments. Hope this is helpful.  You can find me on Wikipedia as the User “Tobyhigbie.”

Posted in History, Labor, Teaching, Technology | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Old Book, New Data

Labor Who's Who title pageOver the past year or so I’ve been working on digital history project that aims to convert a 1925 American Labor Who’s Who into a research and teaching database and wiki. It continues to be “a learning experience,” as my mother used to call all the unpleasant encounters of childhood. Not all bad, to be sure, but not all good. Since I have versions of the data up on the internet, I thought I should post some reflections.

Labor historian Jon Beck from the Michigan State Industrial Relations program started my thinking about the Labor’s Who Who around 2007 or so when he suggested it might be useful for my project on working class autodidacts. The Rand School of Social Science sponsored the compilation of the Who’s Who in 1925 under the direction of Solon De Leon (son of famed radical Daniel De Leon). De Leon and his colleagues threw open the front door to the House of Labor, so to speak, including in the roughly 1,300 entries for the U.S. activists in the fields of immigrant rights, civil liberties, cooperatives, progressive and radical politics, as well as the to-be-expected trade unionists (there are 300 additional non-US activists–a few of these were deported or self-exiled US activists).

Nineteen twenty-five was a curious moment for the American labor movement. The industrial union upsurge of the 1910s was sputtering under the weight of repression, factionalism, and failure. The powerful unions of the CIO were a decade or more in the future. Meanwhile, conservatives held a tight, if a bit desperate, grip on the political machinery of trade unionism at the national level, antiunion Republicans were in the White House, and reactionary groups like the KKK and American Legion were popular.  And yet, there was a great deal of activity and organizational creativity in some unions, and there was a blossoming network labor colleges training the leaders of the ’30s.

The Labor Who’s Who is a snapshot of this contingent moment and some of the people who lived it.  Each entry is a telegraphic biography. Some provide only name, professional title and address at the time of publication. But many sketch rich life histories. Nearly all provide details on birth date and place, family background, education, migration, and work histories, as well as key organizations, events and publications.  It includes both long-serving elders whose careers stretched back to the 1870s, and emerging leaders who would continue to be active into the second half of the 20th century.

For years I had a library copy of the book on my office shelf, thinking I would get to the project eventually.  Then in 2012 I discovered the book had been scanned by Google and was sitting behind the access wall in the HathiTrust (HT) digital collection.  You could search keywords, but the search only returned a few words and a page number.  From my key word searches, I knew that about 40 individuals identified themselves as “self-educated,” but learning more about the educational and organization matrix represented in the directory was just beyond reach. Hoping to avoid the wrath of Disney and other commercial publishers, HT takes a defensive approach to copyright.  Most things published after the easy cut off for public domain (before 1923) go behind the access wall.

Very frustrating.  And ironic. Here was a book published by a radical college, locked behind a copyright wall at the behest of capitalist media corporations.  Not that these corporations give a hoot about the Labor Who’s Who, it’s just structural.  Everything after 1922 goes behind the wall unless someone specifically requests it be freed.

Thus was born what I’m now calling the “HathiTrust Liberation Project.”  Hundreds and hundreds of labor and leftist volumes published between 1923 and 1963 are in the public domain unless their copyright holders renewed the copyright (there is an online database of to check for renewed copyrights: ).  Unlike literary works, mundane works of non-fiction and social movement publications are usually not renewed.  Many of these volumes are already digitized, but are blocked.  Likewise, a surprising number of post-1923 government documents are behind the access wall.

The Labor Who’s Who was my first foray into old book liberation. Through the good graces of the UCLA Library, I was able to convince HT that the copyright on the Labor Who’s Who probably wasn’t renewed, and in any case the socialists won’t kick if you open it up.  Somebody flipped a switch and the volume appeared.  This was in the spring or summer of 2012.

The next task was extracting and cleaning OCR’d text.  This turned out to be a little more complicated than I expected.  In the end, I downloaded an EPUB version of the Who’s Who, and copy-and-pasted the text into a separate file.  So far, so good.  But this was a long way from a database. With the help of UCLA librarian Zoe Borovsky and Miriam Posner of the Center for Digital Humanities, I got some help breaking the text up into discreet entries and, eventually, data fields.  However, there were many, many text recognition errors.  I probably could have hired someone to do it (if I had the money), but in the end I did most of the corrections myself.  Let’s just say I became intimately familiar with the contents of the book.  And isn’t that the traditional activity of scholarly humanists after all, even if this mode of familiarity generally is not recognized as such by personnel committees.

So by the late fall of 2012, I had a relatively clean text file with entries broken into fields:  name, titles, birthplace, birth date, father’s occupation, and a residual field that was too irregular to easily parse that included things like education, organizations, activities, publications, home and work address.  Next came the task of reorganizing this information from a flow of text into a spreadsheet, rather tediously done by cutting and pasting in Microsoft Excel.

From the start, I had envisioned the Who’s Who database as a teaching tool, as well as a research project.  I imagined students using the entries as a starting place for biographical papers, so I needed a student-friendly interface.  I had experimented fitfully having students write or edit Wikipedia entries in my classes, so it seemed natural to put the Who’s Who data in a wiki.  A regular wiki is searchable, but doesn’t really have database functions.  To get those, I used the Mediawiki extension bundle Semantic Mediawiki.  The semantic wiki allows you to define data fields and relationships, import data, search across data fields, and enable students or other users (if you wish) to edit the data through forms.

birthplacesworkaddressI also loaded the data into a Google Fusion Table, which allows you to quickly make maps from any geographic data (e.g., birthplaces).  Fusion Tables is easy, but limited in terms of customizing.  My students used the filtering and mapping functions to produce in-class reports on the demographics of various organizations represented in the directory.  Semantic Mediawiki is much more flexible.  But for the non-expert it was one of those “learning experiences.”  Many late nights, crashes, and frustrations before ultimate success.  In the future I hope to use it in my labor history classes to train students how to use a wiki before I set them off on the actual Wikipedia.

What remains to be done is the “Other” field–education, organizations, publications–lots of good stuff.  I’m currently working with folks at the Center for Digital Humanities, and hope to have that done by late winter.  In the meanwhile, I’m doing some analysis of subsets of the Who’s Who, particularly the organizational networks.  And that presents me with my next “learning experience,” Gephi.

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Visual Culture of Workers’ Education

Excerpt of image from You and Your Union, 1935

Excerpt of image from You and Your Union, 1935

This week I had the opportunity to present my work-in-progress on the visual culture of workers’ education to a group of scholars at the Newberry Library.

The great thing about a deadline is that it makes you write.  And the great thing about sharing your work is that you have to actually explain yourself.  Now, it’s back to work!  The images are on my Flickr photostream.

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Did they really read Marx?

Over the weekend I attended an excellent new book panel on Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: a 19th Century Life organized by the Labor History Seminar at the Newberry Library here in Chicago.  The general thrust of Sperber’s book is to remove Marx from the role of icon, guide, or precursor to the crimes or triumphs of 20th century communist regimes.  Marx was not a prophetic thinker, Sperber argues. Rather he was mired in historically specific battles over politics and ideology in Central Europe, and backward looking intellectually.

There were some pointed criticisms of the book, especially from Bruce Levine (U. of Illinois) and Susan Pearson (Northwestern), along with general praise and comment on the achievement of grappling with such a complex subject.  Pearson calmly skewered Sperber for relegating the role Jenny Marx and the Marx’s housekeeper Helene Demuth to a chapter on the “private Marx” when in fact it appears they were key to the social reproduction of the fetishized and very public commodity “Karl Marx,” to paraphrase from memory.

Another interesting line of discussion concerned why and how Marx became such a singular figure for socialist movements when relatively little of his writing was known outside of Germany in his lifetime, and when his economic writing was so notoriously difficult to understand.  Sperber’s answer was that Marxism should in fact be termed “Engels-ism” because it was the work of Marx’s literary executor Friedrich Engels that made Marx famous on the left.

Less commented upon was the vernacular radicalism that developed alongside Marx’s writing and reputation, and was much more influential at least into the 1930s.  In this regard, there is a fascinating passage from Floyd Dell’s “Books and Writers” column (The Progressive Woman (September 1912), p. 11).  It suggests a time when Marx was not quite so hegemonic.

“Das Kapital” is sometimes spoken of as “the Socialist’s Bible.”  It is not, for two reasons.  The first is that, even Socialists do not read it.  In this they are not without justification, for the book is, in its strictly economic parts, to any ordinary human being, unreadable.  Why any one except a mathematician should bother about those amazing equations of Marx’s I do not see, nor do I see why any one should imagine that in explicating the Socialist “theory of value” these equations have any more than a suggestive validity.  Value, like everything else, is too complex to be reduced to an equation, and there is as much truth in the soap-box phrase, “Labor is the source of all value,” as in the maddening mathematics of Marx.  The fact is, the Socialist movement is not based soley on Marxian economics, and though Marxian economics may fall, yet the Socialist movement goes on.  There is good history and good historical philosophy in the volume which make it well worth reading.  But we Socialists (as I said) do not read it.

It was Walt Whitman, Dell suggested, who had written the Socialist Bible in his “Leaves of Grass.”  Commenting on his own youthful participation in Marxist study groups, Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian of 20th century labor and capitalism, recalled his struggle to understand Marx’s “labor theory of value” and ultimate conclusion that it just didn’t make sense economically.  But morally and ethically it made a lot of sense.  Sperber’s book argues that Marx just couldn’t make the shift to positivism in the late 19th century–maybe he shouldn’t have tried?

The idea of vernacular radicalism put me in mind of the frequent question in my own research:  did early 20th century rank-and-file radicals really read any Marx?  And if they read it, could they possibly understand the complexity of Marx’s economic writing, which is famously tough reading for professional intellectuals to this day.  The question, I think is actually part of a broader skepticism about the reading practices of ordinary people–then and today.  Sure they could read, but did they really read?  Or did they just pass their eyes over the text without really getting the point.  Did they–and do they–get it?

Dell was an exceptional working-class intellectual by any measure.  But his educational background wasn’t that far off the norm for working class activists.  The son of a butcher and a teacher, he grew up on Illinois and Iowa, and left school after 2 years of high school.  He told the American Labor Who’s Who (1925) that the “most important part of [my] education [was] gained in [a] Socialist local and [the] pubic library.”  There is, in fact, evidence in diaries, letters, and publications that more-or-less ordinary working people did read and understand high brow literature and social science.  Some would fall into the category of “extraordinary ordinary people”–rank and file workers who were, I’m quite sure, smarter and better read than many professional intellectuals then or now.  In any case, it’s also worth exploring the opposite side of the question:  the non-reading of books, and whether this non-reading has any positive significance.  In other words, what impact did books and text have on those who didn’t read them very thoroughly but who circulated in a public sphere suffused with conversations about books and text?  That will have to wait for another day.

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Transfixed by Distant Power

Excerpt of image from You and Your Union, 1935

Excerpt of image from You and Your Union, 1935

Workers gazing upward and into the distance was a key motif of sight in the art and photography of self-education. In this post, I follow this gaze to see what lies in the distance. Later I will move on to other common modes of looking: staring intently at books (i.e., reading) and staring out at the viewer while holding books.  I’ll have more to say about each of these in the future (likely in more formal venues), but for now I am simply “#writing in public”…

The enticement, fatalism, and police repression that the rank-and-file Wobbly Van Dilman drew in his cartoon “And the First Great Step is Education” personified the forces standing between working-class self-educators and their lofty goals. These were very much present dangers, as opposed to the memory of child labor depicted in John Anderson’s “Out of the Darkness.” Anderson, after all, was a success story; with barely any schooling he rose to the rank of Vice President in one of North America’s larger trade unions. Dilman was still looking and climbing up.

International Socialist Review, February 1916Still, the “workers college” that Anderson’s drawing suggested as the place of enlightenment was somewhere out of sight. Other images suggested more definite objects of attention, sometimes the sun or a star, sometimes a union logo, and sometimes across great distances to symbols of political and intellectual power. Distance and attention signaled desire, or at least they advertised the things viewers ought to desire in the artist’s opinion. For instance, the cover of the February 1916 International Socialist Review (drawn by Stanford Chumley) pictured a workman sitting down to his lunch amidst factory buildings and power lines that open onto a view of a distant capital building. In the language of the Second International, workers want political power, and they can get it through the Socialist Party. Job Doubtful?  Try StudyRecruiting posters for the Workers Summer Schools at Bryn Mawr and the University of Wisconsin played with similar imagery. In one, a women looks up from her sewing machines and busy work-mates to a cathedral-like university building atop a hill. Another (“Job Doubtful? Try Study”) reverses the view. A male figure dressed in a suit (presumably the worker addressed by the poster’s text) looks out upon an industrial landscape from beneath a archway that suggests a university building.  Each of these seems to play off the idea that knowledge and power occupy high ground that allows for a clearer view than possible in the cluttered and crowded working-class neighborhoods.

Like the temple on a hill, the rising sun is an old symbols that artists and illustrators have deployed to represent everything from national power to religious conversion, working-class revolution and superior consumer products. By the 1920s the visual language of advertising, especially in mass market periodicals and product labeling, was accessible to people across the industrializing world, and we can see some of this in labor movement iconography.  In fact, some IWW cartoonists of the 1930s parodied product advertising, but that’s for a later discussion.

Knowledge is PowerInstead, let’s look at two very different examples of the rising sun image, one symbolizing collective power and the other private escape. The title page of  the 1935 ILGWU Education Department pamphlet “You and Your Union” (detail to the left) shows two women and two men looking up from their sewing machines and irons to a female figure. She holds aloft in one hand the logo of the union (radiating shafts of light), and points to the words “Knowledge is Power” at the center of the image. Under her arm she holds a set of books. The message here, I think, was not simply that the union, or education, was something workers desired. There is also a sense of the distance between workers and their goal, and the relative clarity of the object they gaze toward. You and Your Union CoverBut this image begs my original question: what does powerful knowledge look like? We get a better sense from the pamphlet’s cover. Here the “Knowledge is Power” image sits atop a rising sun, and out of the sun well-dressed working women and men stride forcefully toward the reader. A pile of books, some open to text and images, lies between the viewer (a rank-and-file union member) and the powerful ranks of labor.  The composite illustration links the individual and the shop group to the overall collective force of the union.  It suggests both that reading is a crucial instrument of collective power, and that collective power makes books accessible as desired consumer products.

Vacation DreamingBooks, as Nan Enstad argues in her study of women garment workers (Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure), symbolized and embodied leisure time and an imagined “good life”—time beyond the power of the factory clock and the rhythm of the machine.  That is why the marching workers in on the cover of “You and Your Union” are so well dressed–they are not going to work.  They are going out on the town. But if books symbolized leisure, nothing could symbolize free time more effectively than a book held, but unread.  What a luxury it was to have time to doze off over a good book!  This was the message of a cartoon accompanying a 1912 short story, “The Tired Girl’s Dream.” In the story, a young woman sits alone in her tiny apartment dreading the coming workday.  She is, by today’s standards, depressed because she simply moves between unrewarding work and her lonely apartment.  She imagines herself sitting in the country, back up against a tree, a book open on her lap. But instead of reading, she gazes off into the distance at nothing in particular.

Next up: didactic, heroic, and assertive modes of looking.

* * *

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Iconography: From a Rank-and-File Wobbly

Continuing with my series on the iconography and visual culture of workers’ education, I turn now to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) monthly journal, Industrial Pioneer.  The journal was the successor to One Big Union Monthly, and was published from 1921-1926. The Industrial Pioneer had little in the way of news (this was handled by the union’s weekly press in English and a number of other languages).  It’s pages were filled with educational articles, commentary on contemporary culture and politics, book reviews, and original cartoons, plays, short stories, and poems.  This “educational matter” and “proletarian art,” the editor announced in the first issue would “spread the doctrines of Revolutionary Industrial Unionism.” Reflecting its participatory approach to organizing, IWW newspapers and magazines routinely published member-created reports from the field, and carried over the member-generated cartoons, songs and fiction.  As Franklin Rosemont notes in his “A Short Treatise on Wobbly Cartoons,” in the 1988 edition of Joyce Kornbluh’s Rebel Voices collection, not all all of the IWW’s cartoonists were amateurs.  Well-known leftist cartoonists like Art Young and Robert Minor at times drew for the Wobblies, and apparently a few professional illustrators working in “the capitalist press” donated their work under pen-names. But the identity of one “Van Dilman” remains a mystery.  He appears to have been a rank-and-file reader of the Industrial Pioneer who submitted his work in support of the cause.

And the First Great Step is EducationLike Kennedy’s “Upward and Into the Light,” Van Dilman’s cartoon (dated 1925 and published in 1926) features an allegorical female figure and the directional metaphor of climbing. For both, education is a path toward freedom, however, Dilman’s cartoon places Lady Liberty atop a pedestal and distant from the shirtless, male figure grasping the educational step and calling out “Let’s get up fellow workers.” Education is just “the first great step” followed by Organization and Emancipation (the three-part motto of the IWW). Why education is such a big step is evident from the other figures in the foreground. On the right, a female figure, with bare midriff and feet, taunts the rebel worker saying “Above lies illusion. Joys of the flesh are close to the ground.” On the far left of the image, a male figure with arms akimbo and hat pulled over his face asks, “Why don’t the damn fool be satisfied with what he has? He knows the law won’t let him climb!” In the middle foreground a policeman with a billy club, a soldier with rifle, and a hooded Klansman with pistol drawn advance on the would be working class intellectual.

Darker and less hopeful than most cartoons about education, Dilman’s drawing was accompanied by explanatory text that seems at odds with its visual message.

Living in the midst of the disgusting debaucheries of the capitalistic hogs who wallow in the products of modern industry, and continually menaced by the persecutions of their filthy gunmen, thugs, and murderers, the working class is still on the whole, untainted and uncowed. It continually strives towards the three things the I.W.W. takes as its motto: Education, Organization, Emancipation.” It not only tries in individual cases to mount this staircase toward the stars, but it is socially minded, and each member calls on his fellow to rise along with him.

Despite these protestations, the working class presented by the cartoon seems quite at war with itself, and subject to doubts about all three of the great steps. As rank-and-file Wobblies would have known, these temptations and doubts were very real. Just as the beast “Hunger” in Kennedy’s drawing suggests his personal experience as a child laborer, Dilman likely knew what he was drawing. The first challenges facing self-taught working people would have been close at hand—neighbors, friends and family doubtful that education would do any good, and the temptations of the “joys of the flesh” only a paycheck away. Notably absent from the image are those who might reach down to help the worker up, either real or allegorical. Although the fact that the artist sent this image to the editors of the Industrial Pioneer suggests he looked to the magazine for education and inspiration, in the image no one is leading the way. If anything, Dilman’s drawing suggests that 1925 was a lonely year to be a Wobbly autodidact.

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Upward and Into the Light

So, if you read the last post, you know I’m blogging my way through a rough draft of a chapter on the visual culture/iconography of working class self-education.  As with most popular political cartooning, those of labor and the left were usually simple (often simplistic), direct and frequently over-the-top. I wouldn’t be the first to note the strongly masculinist messaging of many cartoons, or to suggest that we can read into these images the ideology of the movement, warts and all. The scholars that have influenced my thinking most on the topic are Liz Faue (great chapter on labor cartooning in 1930s Minneapolis that drew women out of the movement), Roland Marchand’s work on advertising and corporate public relations (particularly the chapter in Creating the Corporate Soul on the PR response to industrial unionism in the 1930s), and Barbara Melosh’s beautiful book on New Deal art and theater, Engendering Culture.

In the Hands of the EnemyLet’s start with some straight-forward visual vocabulary of education and ignorance:  upward and into the light.  Like a lot of conversations about personal and social transformation, the imagery of workers’ self-education used simple darkness/light and down/up oppositions to give their images direction and meaning. The iconography of working class self-education often juxtaposed images of clean, upright and modern self-educators with various negative counterparts signifying ignorance, vice, or exploitation. Like this image of “Ignorance” as an ape clasping the “average voter” under its arm by the Socialist editor Barnet Braverman, left wing cartoonist often focused on the negative: ignorance and powerlessness. When positive enlightenment does appear, it is frequently in the allegorical female figure, guiding workers upward or shining a light in the darkness.

In John F. Anderson’s “Out of the Darkness—Into the Light” we get both bestial ignorance and the goddess of learning. The two-panel full-page cartoon appeared in Labor Age in 1924. In the first panel, a caveman-like figure with “HUNGER” on his belly and a club labeled “WORK” pulls a young boy away from an idyllic country schoolhouse. In the second panel the boy, now an adult wearing workers’ overalls, walks hand-in-hand on the way to a “Workers’ College” with a female figure wearing a sash labeled “Workers Education Bureau of America” and holding aloft a torch lighting the words “Knowledge with Make You Free.” Born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1878, Anderson’s family migrated to the western U.S. when he was about 10 years old and he went to work shortly afterwards attending grammar school for less than a year while he worked. He apprenticed as a machinist, and worked in railroading around St. Louis where he became active in the International Association of Machinists (IAM). He rose to be a Vice President of the IAM and even contested the presidency, but lost.

Out of the Darkness--Into the Light

In “Out of the Darkness,” Anderson was likely commenting on his own childhood. He also put into pictures a message that was familiar to those in the workers education movement in part because so many had also been child workers. As a member of the New York Central Labor College put it in 1926, “The failure of our economic and political system to function socially has forced thousands of children into industry too early, thus depriving them of their educational heritage with great loss to industry and the state, and to the children themselves. This loss has been felt most keenly by those whose minds have not been crushed by our autocratic educational or industrial system or by both. Hence the constant striving of these adults for education which will enable them to function more effectively as workers and as citizens and to enjoy the cultural values of life.” But the “Workers College” imagined in the cartoon was somewhere in the future, enlightenment was a process with a definite, but as yet unrealized, destination. The child and the adult in the cartoon seem to be on the same road, but heading in opposite directions. What’s more, the cartoon suggests that the road toward workers’ education re-balances male worker toward heterosexuality (albeit with an mythological woman). Many associated child labor with sexual danger and deviance during the Progressive Era, and I think it not unreasonable to read HUNGER in the cartoon as the potential for sexual violence, as well as a symbol of evolutionary backwardness and carnality. In the context of the Progressive Era conversation about evolutionary backwardness, the “racial” characteristics of living peoples (which at the time encompassed what we would call ethnicity and race) were almost always intertwined with the presumed long-term changes in society we call modernity. So “Hunger” and “Ignorance” in these cartoons can be seen in racial terms, although it would be interesting to see if either Braverman or Anderson have any statements directly on the topic.

Next up: an IWW cartoon, “And the First Great Step is Education.”

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Iconography of Workers Education

Knowledge is PowerOne of my writing tasks this year is to draft a chapter on the iconography of the workers education movement. The basic questions are these: if everyone agreed with the aphorism that “Knowledge is Power,” what did powerful knowledge look like?  How did students and educators describe this knowledge, and how were their visual practices related (if at all) to the organizational forms emerging in the first half of the 20th century?

American Negro Labor CongressIn the age of industry it was relatively easy to imagine power as a dynamo, a locomotive, a factory, tank or gun. But these tools of human activity don’t in themselves obtain knowledge. Likewise in an era of machismo, power was frequently embodied as a muscular manly man.   The stock image of a man with brains was that of the weakling, bespectacled intellectual.  How then to depict intelligent, powerful working women?  Or coal miners and loggers with extensive personal libraries and literary ambitions?  Did craft knowledge and book knowledge look the same? Did knowledge–as depicted in cartoons, drawings and photographs–have race and gender? Could knowledge visually overpower the social prejudice that associated mental acuity with the middle and upper classes, and the daily performance of manual labor with lack of intelligence?

unorganized brain workerThese questions matter because, as the philosopher Charles Taylor writes, “Ideas always come in history wrapped up in certain practices, even if these are only discursive practices.”  Patterns of image-making, I think, help us place the meaning of learning outside of the texts and lectures that were, if we can believe many labor educators, insufficient modes of communication for their working class students.   To be sure, I am privileging sight over other senses.  One can hear liberation in the songs of the freedmen and freedwomen, for instance.  But because seeing and visualizing is itself a technology of power, it makes sense to ponder visual production as a key practice of working class self-education.

I’ve collecting images as I’ve read through periodicals and ephemera over the last few years, and generally archive them on my Flickr account. I’m primarily focusing on popular education as it emerged in the pre-World War I socialist and labor movements, and as it developed in what was known as “workers education” between the two World Wars.  As such, most of my images come from primarily from radical and labor union periodicals.  I’m somewhat less interested in mainstream media images, except when they specifically comment on workers education, radicalism, and the perceived mental states of working people–for instance in the case of the “Robot.”

Look for posts in coming days about particular visual motifs, and let me know whether I’m making any sense.

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Working Paper: UC Workers Education, 1921-62

horizontal and vertical unions

Illustration of AFL and CIO unionism by a California worker-student, c. 1937.

At the end of World War II California created a new academic institution devoted to the study and influence of industrial relations. Along with similar initiatives in at least five other industrial states, the University of California’s Institute of Industrial Relations (IIR) aimed to bring academic balance to the rancorous hand-to-hand combat typical of labor relations in the 1930s and 1940s. In the folklore of the university, this was uncharted territory upon which the visionary scholar Clark Kerr would make his name. The future Berkeley Chancellor and university president later recalled that the IIR was the brainchild of liberal Republican governor Earl Warren. Kerr told an interviewer that as he took over the IIR he tried in vain to learn whether the university “ever had any contact with the trade union movement at all,” but could find only one person who had tried and given up the effort amidst Labor’s factional split of the 1930s. “We came in as the very first effort of this big university to make contact with the trade unions,” Kerr recalled. “It was Earl Warren’s way of saying that the unions were recognized as an important part of California society.”

In fact, by 1945 the University of California had participated for more than 20 years in outreach to labor unions and working people. But these earlier programs differed from the IIR in their outlook toward unions and employers, and their status within the university. “Workers’ education,” as it was known in the years before World War II, was a wide-ranging movement that included trade unionists, political radicals, and middle class reformers. Taking place largely outside the mainstream university system, workers’ education served as training ground for the generation of activists that brought the labor movement into political power during the 1940s. Until the spectacular growth of unions during World War II, University of California administrators were uniformly wary, and often hostile to workers’ education as a university enterprise. A small program of the University Extension during the 1920s, workers’ education became an issue for administrators during the turbulent Depression years when worker-students gathered for summer institutes and turned to discussions of the epic strikes taking place around them. Conservative business leaders denounced the program, and the UC kept its distance. As university president Robert Sproul wrote to an angry businessman, the workers’ education program had “no organic connection with the University.” Despite his stern denial, by the early 1940s Sproul was himself leading efforts within the UC to create organic connections to labor, this time on terms the university could better understand and control.

This essay traces the development of University of California workers’ education programming, with an emphasis on the Pacific Coast School for Workers and its rocky relationship with university administrators. I then examine the University of California’s response to legislative efforts to fund worker education and industrial relations programs, and the ultimate development of the Institute for Industrial Relations. I conclude with some thoughts about implications of this history for present-day labor programming within the university, and for the labor movement. Outreach to organized workers, and efforts to bring working class students into the university, reflected a contest over knowledge about work, unions, and political economy. With the development of Industrial Relations programs, American universities positioned themselves as neutral arbiters able to stand above the dirty work of industrial conflict. But the university purchased this neutrality by foreclosing a deeper connection to workers-as-students and students-as-workers. For administrators, it was an easy choice. “Industrial Relations” sanctioned legitimate university interactions with unions and managers separate from the core liberal arts curriculum and the on-campus community. In the postwar expansion of higher education, working class youth would encounter the university as students rather than workers. But the development of Industrial Relations was also a boon to labor educators who gained new legitimacy and funding stability. In the years after 1945, outreach programs to labor expanded significantly, particularly at UCLA.

Read the whole paper at the UCLA IRLE Working Papers Series.

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From the Archive: “a spirit of hostility toward organized labor”

Part of a resolution of the Illinois Federation of Labor, 1942

Part of a resolution of the Illinois Federation of Labor, 1942

I spent the last week doing research in the University of Illinois archives. Kind of what you’d expect: memos, reports in triplicate, lots of form letters. I’m looking into the ways faculty and administrators reacted to demands by organized workers that universities be more responsive to the needs of industrial workers and unions during the 1920s and 1930s. Recently, I posted a working paper on the University of California’s worker education and industrial relations programs, and this week’s research is follow up and comparison work.

Like several other states, Illinois established an industrial relations program at the end of World War II–the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations (ILIR, now the School of Labor and Employment Relations). Also, like other states the original drive for the program came from unions: in 1942, delegates at the Illinois State Federation of Labor convention passed a resolution (put forward by a group of milk truck drivers, link) that “a department be set up in the University of Illinois with properly qualified labor economists and analysts to advise and supply information which will assist the workers in their many complex problems.” As was the case in California, labor-backed Democrats and Republicans were willing–even eager–to direct large sums of money to the university in support of these programs. University officials set their sights much lower and some actively sabotaged the efforts.

By 1945, about two years after the initial discussions between unions and university administrators, the unions and their legislative allies were ready to move ahead.

State legislature to UI admin: here’s $400,000 (about $5 million today)

UI admin to State legislature: well, we really only need $25,000

State legislature: take $125,000 and get back to work.

This was basically the same conversation California had in 1939 when state-level New Dealers advanced a bill for a Labor Extension on par with the Ag. Extension. What ultimately resulted from these efforts was really not what the unions had in mind. Rather than a Labor Extension, they got Industrial Relations with labor on the side.

There were, of course, complicated reasons for this. But the primary reason had to do with how university people envisioned objectivity and knowledge vis a vis working people. There was always a much more uphill battle to get pro-labor views within the university than pro-business. For instance, in a 1943 letter Economics professor Horace Gray explains to the Provost why there is no existing program in labor economics, recounting how a series of labor economists were so poorly treated that graduate advisors in prominent economics departments warned their students not to take job offers from the UI. Later the chair of Economics attempted to hire to teach labor union courses “a man who by his writings and utterances is clearly a Fascist–a ‘business administration’ expert who for large retainers serves the interests of certain anti-union employers in Chicago.” And when they finally did hire a labor economists, the junior scholar was told that renewal of his two-year appointment “would depend on his refraining from any association with labor leaders and from participation in the activities of labor unions. He was also warned that in his teaching he was expected to be ‘objective’ and to refrain from expressing any sympathy with organized labor.” Gray concluded that, despite leadership turnover in the department, “There will still remain in the College, both among members of the staff and administrative heads, a lack of sympathy and a spirit of hostility toward organized labor.”

Seventy years on things have changed. But not that much. In either state.

Full disclosure: I was faculty at the Labor Education Program at the UI ILIR for a few years. There are some fine labor folks there.

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