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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