At the convention of the American Federation of Labor in Portland, Oregon, in October, 1923, the subject that attracted most attention, next to the sensational expulsion of the Communist delegate Dunne, workers’ education. Spencer Miller, Jr., secretary of the Workers’ Education Bureau of America, estimates that during the past season there were 25,000 men and women in this country in attendance upon classes under working-class auspices. Sixty per centof the American Federation of Labor is in organizations that have affiliated themselves with the Workers’ Education Bureau.
All this is encouraging to friends of the infant movement. They are not, however, deceived by it. They are aware thatonly a small beginning has been made; that the mass of trade-union leaders and members have as yet no genuine interest in workers’ education, at least not such as induces them to put money into it; that a city labor college may flourish mightily one year, and the following year practically die out; that the whole movement is in an experimental stage, and that little effort has as yet been made to check up in scientific fashion on the results.
It would seem that the most valuable thing to do at this stage is to state some of the problems and issues that are emerging in connection with the work, as to which data require to be collected and analyzed.
For one thing, there is the question of control. Shall the various workers’ education enterprises be definitely controlled by working-class organizations — trade unions, political parties, cooperative societies — or shall they be intrusted to the extension departments of public-school systems, colleges and universities, and private groups of non-working-class composition? In a number of instances institutions or groups such as are here mentioned have evinced a disposition to “offer their services” to the unions under conditions that would imply turning over the workers’ education movement, or important parts of it to them. In the main the labor movement has taken the position that while it does not wish to supplant existing educational institutions, the control of the schools and classes that are to train notonly the intelligence but the spiritof the officers and members of the unions (or other workers’ organizations) must be in the hands of these unions themselves; and that the labor movement is quite capable of controlling the educational instruments which it is forging for itself. The Workers’ Education Bureau admits to affiliation only enterprises definitely controlled by trade unions or cooperative societies. An offer recently made to it by an outside group to carry on teacher training workers’ classes was not accepted, and the policy laid down that such training should be carried on under the: auspices of the labor movement, which would welcome the assistance of all individuals desiring to work with it.
It will be easier as time goes on to hew a straight line in this matter of control, because of the position being taken on another subject closely bound with it, that of financing. In a considerable number of cases workers’ classes avail themselves of public school or church buildings where this does not involve any control over policy or freedom of teaching. In no instance known to the writer has any money “with a string tied to it” been accepted by any workers’ educational enterprise. The extension department of the University of California, carrying on adult education among trade-union members, last year sought affiliation with the Workers’ Education Bureau, but it was refused. Subsequently the university handed over the $10,000 annual appropriation for this work to a mittee, three-fifths of whom were trade-union representatives. This committee then turned around and engaged as director the man who had previously worked under university direction. T.he reorganized enterprise has been granted affiliation with the W.E.B. However, the great majorityof workers’ schools and classes are being wholly financed by local unions, central labor unions, o r internationals, supplemented perhaps by a small fee from students; and the general disposition on the partof trade unionists is to continue this independent and self-respecting method of financing. The time must come when regular dues are levied for educational purposes as well as for more conventional trade-union activities.