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The Worker Education Problem: teaching in New York City University-based Worker Education Centers

by Matt Noyes (published in Japanese by Rodo Horitsu Junpo, Labor Law Semi-Monthly, translated by Ishikawa Kimihiko: マット・ノイズ(石川公彦訳)「労働者教育の問題点:ニューヨーク市立大学に拠点をおく複数の労働者教育センターにおける教育実践から」(pdf)〔『労働法律旬報』1694号(2009年4月25日発行)掲載)

Eugene Debs has been a hero of mine since I first learned of his pioneering union and political organizing and read his wonderful speeches. Founder of the American Railway Union, leader of the Pullman Strike, and presidential candidate of the Socialist Party, Debs was famous for his militancy and commitment to worker self-organization.

“Too long have workers awaited a Moses to lead them out of bondage,” said Debs, “I would not lead you out even if I could, because if I could lead you out, someone else could lead you back in. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing you can not do for yourselves.”

I know of no better statement of the goal of worker education and the roles of the educator and the educated: to help workers make up their minds in order that they might themselves lead workers out – and keep us out – of bondage.

Interestingly, while Debs saw worker education and organization as the key to liberation, and supported the alternative worker education programs of his day, he doubted that the “American university” could play a useful role in helping to build the workers movement.

"[the American university] was not founded nor endowed for solving labor problems and its curriculum never includes studies specifically designed to aid in the performance of such tasks..., any improvement in that direction would involve such radical changes as would disturb their foundations.” (Tussey, 1972)

That was over a century ago, before universities had labor studies programs like those that exist in many U.S. Universities. In fact, the inclusion of “studies specifically designed to aid in solving labor problems” has been accomplished in many universities, including some of the most prestigious. Think of the research of Kate Bronfenbrenner and Rob Hickey on union organizing strategies and employer resistance. (Bronfenbrenner and Hickey, 2003)

But as a teacher for many years in university-based worker education programs, I find Debs' vision compelling and his skepticism justified. For Debs, “solving labor problems” meant building the workers movement through self-organization and collective action. Do the worker education and labor studies programs of our day really serve that purpose? Are they designed to achieve that goal? Can such education be practiced without radical changes to their foundations?

I hope the following reflections on my work in university-based worker education programs in NYC will provide some insight into what we can call “the worker education problem.”

Three points on terminology

Popular Education
In this essay I use the term “popular education” refer to an educational approach that is democratic, participatory, and designed to facilitate the development of workers capacity for democratic self-organization and collective action. (See Burke, 2002 and Noyes)

Worker Education
This essay focuses on worker education, not labor studies. In practice the two often coexist, as at the Joseph Murphy Center for Worker Education and Labor Studies described below. But there is generally a distinction between labor studies as an academic field of study, and worker education. (Schnee, 2007)

The Labor Problem
I use Debs' term “the Labor Problem” in a broad sense, not simply in terms of trade unions, nor with the idea that Labor refers to some kind of generic worker without reference to race, gender, nationality, or other social factors that shape the working class. To take one example, “Labor” is always overdetermined by race. The “Labor Problem” is intrinsically a race problem – sometimes first and foremost a race problem – even when we are talking exclusively about white workers. The same is true of gender, sexual identity, nationality, etc. (Roediger, 1999)

Worker Education and Adult Education

Worker education in New York City covers a range of educational programs in many different settings, to simplify, we can say there are four basic types of worker education. Often more than one type of worker education takes place in the same program:
“basic skills” courses (typically English as a Second or Other Language or High School Equivalency programs)
“job skills” courses (such as apprenticeship programs and professional training programs)
activist-oriented courses or workshops that teach legal rights, organizing, and other skills (typically in workers centers or other independent workers organizations)
post-secondary academic study (typically in a Bachelors or Masters program designed for workers)

When I started out I was a graduate student in economics and a student-labor activist with radical democratic goals for the workers movement. I got a part-time job teaching Basic Education and GED Preparation at the Adult Learning Center at LaGuardia Community College, part of the City University of New York. In the U.S., people who do not complete High School degree can get a General Equivalency Diploma by taking a standardized test that covers the main subject areas. A High School degree/GED is the minimum academic credential required for most jobs, including entry level working class jobs. Students who lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to participate in the GED preparation courses were assigned to basic education or literacy courses.

The students were all workers, most in low-wage jobs or unemployed. Most were U.S. born, but perhaps a third were immigrants. All of them saw getting the GED as an important step in getting better jobs, or in a few cases, for going on to college-level study.

Despite the name – Adult Learning Center – this was worker education. The students were all workers, and shared many of the problems that plague workers today. The program existed to teach the basic language and math skills needed by employers, and to help workers get a necessary credential for employment.

In the eyes of the university they were “adult learners,” adults who had failed to complete their primary education. The mission of the Adult Learning Center was to remediate their “skills deficit” and enable them to meet the needs of employers. What made this appealing to workers was the very wide-spread ideology of education as a vehicle for improved working conditions and class mobility. (For U.S. workers as a whole, education is more likely to reproduce social stratification than challenge it. (Schnee, 2007)

There is sometimes debate about whether professors are really workers, but there wasn't at the Adult Learning Center of LaGuardia Community College. The faculty and staff were working at the lower end of the spectrum of academic employment. Most of us were contingent workers with no job security or benefits. Unlike regular CUNY faculty, our employer was a special non-union private division of the university called the Research Foundation. In an odd parallel with our students, who were seen as “adults” and not as workers, the employment agreements we signed defined us as “non-instructional staff.” (The agreements themselves contained, in bold letters, the disclaimer, "THIS IS NOT A CONTRACT.")

The conception of education as a form of social service for needy people, the mission of preparing workers to meet the needs of employers, the ideology of mobility through education, and the precarity in employment for educators are all formidable barriers to the type of education for liberation that Debs envisioned. The same conditions prevail even in most self-identified “worker education” programs, as I learned when I left the Adult Learning Center for a job at the Worker-Family Education Program of the old International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

The ILGWU Worker-Family Education Program

Founded in the early 20th century by fiery socialists and feminists like Fannia Cohn, the Worker Family Education Program is part of the rich history of worker education in the U.S. (Orleck, 1995). But by the time I was hired in the early 1990's, the fire had long gone out.

The ILGWU was in a state of decline, characterized by a failure to organize, weak enforcement of contracts, and collusive, sometimes corrupt relationships with employers. The ILGWU finally merged with the Clothing and Textile Workers (ACTWU) and later the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (HERE). Workers in my classes were recent immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe. When I asked about working conditions, they described sweatshops with exploitative, often illegal conditions including locked fire doors, unpaid wages, child labor, and workers having to kick back money to their bosses to get enough hours to qualify for health insurance. They distrusted the union representatives and talked about union business agents who collaborated with the employers and didn't like 'troublemakers.' For most of these workers, English looked like the way out of the sweatshops (and the ILGWU) and into better jobs.

For union officials education was another service to offer to members, like health benefits or a union credit card. Occasionally the union's organizing department would come and hold unannounced “captive audience” meetings, where classes were canceled without warning and students were gathered to hear speakers talk about a particular campaign being run by the union staff. Linking education to organizing is a goal of worker educators, but the bait and switch approach used in this program created resentment among many workers.

The director of the Worker Family Education Program wanted to do more and hired a new core group of full-time teachers tasked with bringing a more activist-oriented, popular education approach to the program, I was one of them. Our core group of seven full-time teachers studied popular education and how the program could move towards a popular education approach. The first obstacle we encountered was resistance from our coworkers – the majority of whom were full-time public school teachers by day who taught in the Worker Family Education Program in the evening for a little extra income. They had years of experience and felt the new approach was being imposed from above without their participation. Our refusal to coerce our fellow teachers to change their teaching approaches led to conflict between our teachers group and the Worker Family Education Program administrators, a conflict that sharpened after we organized a union for teachers and staff.

Soon after I started, the Worker Family Education Program became part of the Consortium for Worker Education (CWE), a large not for profit educational organization sponsored by more than 30 NYC trade unions that received most of its funds from the New York State government. The CWE ran a wide range of programs, from computer training for displaced workers, to English classes for immigrants, to job training for hotel workers. The ESL and other courses I taught at the ILGWU, and later other unions like the Service Employees International Union 1199 (SEIU), and the Office and Professional Employees International Union(OPEIU) were all part of the CWE.

Organizing a union was an important step toward realizing the conditions necessary for making worker education relevant to social transformation. Not only did we learn unionism by doing it (important for worker educators), we also had the chance to integrate education and organizing – to practice what we preached. Teachers also gained some degree of protection and security, including an academic freedom clause. Teacher self organization provided a foundation for challenging the CWE's mission.

Context is critical

While the Worker Family Education Program and the CWE shared much with “adult education” programs, there were important differences. The programs were union sponsored and the students were recruited as workers and as union members, not simply as adults. In practice this often meant I worked with a classroom full of people from one or two workplaces, with shared conditions and common interests. For worker educators interested in using a popular education approach, this starting point is crucial: it creates the conditions of possibility for dialogue about shared problems and the collective action that might be used to help solve them. To use a baseball metaphor, we were starting out on first base. At the Adult Learning Center, I wasn't even in the ballpark, maybe not even wandering around the parking lot!

But the context also carried a risk. As I learned, talk about education for liberation or radical pedagogy may be accepted in many unions, even promoted – as it was at the Worker Family Education Program – classroom techniques inspired by popular education were also tolerated, but if the popular education you practice crosses over from reflection to action, it is a different story. Thus, my work at the CWE ended abruptly when home health attendants in an ESL class I taught moved from complaining about abusive working conditions and poor representation from their union to organizing a rank-and-file committee – Trabajadores/as Unidos/as (workers united) – to challenge their employer and put pressure on their union. The president of their union suspected I was the leader and had me fired – the CWE management had little choice but to comply because they depended on the unions and their political influence to get funding from the City and State. (I did support the home attendants, not as their leader, but by putting them in contact with the Latino Workers Center, the community-based immigrant workers organization that facilitated their organizing.)

Successful popular education – education in which workers begin to “make up their minds” as Debs put it and take action – will almost inevitably be seen by the union administration as a threat, and they will take firm action to put a stop to it.

While my legal case dragged on, I volunteered as a teacher and teacher-trainer at the Latino Workers Center, helping them set up ESL classes and facilitating staff development workshops for the organizers. The Latino Workers Center was an independent, non-profit community-based immigrant workers organization (it no longer exists). Unlike the university-based and union-sponsored programs in which I had worked, at the Latino Workers Center the goal was to use popular education for movement building. I won't say more about that experience here, since my topic is university-based worker education, except to say that the experience helped clarify the question of what conditions are necessary in order to practice worker education that actively contributes to “solving the labor problem.”

When the unemployment money ran out, I went back to being a multiple part-timer, finding work back at the Adult Learning Center and in a family literacy program run by Bank Street College of Education. It was hard to go back to 'adult education' after having tasted the potential power of worker education. So when I learned about a job opening at Empire State College, teaching in the Joint Apprenticeship Training Program for members of the big construction union International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 3, I quickly applied, even though I knew little about the program.

The Joint Apprenticeship Training Program (JATP) is part of Empire State College's Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies, one of the State University of New York's thirteen colleges. Empire State College is a large institution itself with thirty five locations in New York State, several locations overseas, and an online distance learning program. Founded in 1973 as a “college for adult students,” Empire State College grants Associates, Bachelors and Master's degrees.

Harry Van Arsdale Jr, after whom Empire State College's Labor Studies Center is named, was one of New York City's most prominent building trades union officials until his death in 1986. He was president of IBEW Local 3, and president of the New York City Central Labor Council. It was the campaign Harry Van Arsdale Jr led to make higher education available to workers that resulted in the creation of Empire State college and the Labor Studies center. Van Arsdale was also instrumental in establishing the labor-management Joint Industry Board of the Electrical Industry that manages the Joint Apprenticeship Training Program.

To become qualified electricians and full union members, IBEW apprentices work on the job, complete technical training required for the job, and earn an Associate of Science Degree in labor studies. (An Associate degree represents two years of college study, as opposed the the typical four years of a Bachelors Degree.) As the program literature notes, the academic component of the program is unusual. “Students examine labor history, a union's role in an industry and in society as a whole, economics, the changing composition of the workforce, and topics in occupational safety and health. They also learn to express their ideas in writing and become computer literate through writing and computer skills courses.”

I taught evening courses in “U.S. Labor History” and “Labor and the Law” to workers whose workday had started at six or seven in the morning. Classes were held in the Chelsea Vocational High School, a typical old New York City high school. The typical apprentice was a twenty-something year old, U.S. born, white man with a high school degree, often with a relative (usually father or uncle) in the trade and in the union. After lawsuits and years of struggle, the apprenticeship program had made an effort to recruit women and people of color, so the student body was diverse.

Construction electricians earn a wage that is high for blue collar jobs, with good benefits and job security. Several of the students were starting the apprenticeship program as a second career, having already worked as police officers or sanitation workers, in the hopes of securing a second pension and the relatively high wages that come with seniority.

The faculty were mostly white men, nearly all part-timers like me, members of the American Association of University Professors but, again, with no job security and insufficient hours to qualify for health insurance or other benefits.

Apprentices came from work and were tired and not interested in being in school – especially back in a typical old New York City high school. As students, their motivation was purely pragmatic – it was a requirement of the apprenticeship program. If workers failed to show up or do the required coursework they would be called to a disciplinary hearing by the JATP board and might be expelled from the apprenticeship program. The electrical theory classes had some obvious relevance to their jobs, but labor history?

Union Discipline, Job Discipline, and The Gentleman's “C”

My strategy, to get workers into a meaningful dialogue about their work and lives by connecting their experience as apprentices to the experiences of workers in different periods in U.S. labor history, went against the current of the program. The whole idea of the program was that workers should demonstrate discipline by coming on time and meeting the requirements, and thus move up to journeyman status. As teachers we were effectively on our own – our assignment was to cover the material and not demand too much of the students. The idea that the classroom might relevant to increasing worker participation or organizing was not mentioned. When it came time to give grades, the advice from the administration was “if they show up sober and don't disrupt the class, give them a “gentleman's 'C'.”

Nonetheless, I found that many students were interested in labor history and enjoyed the participatory approach I used. Their writing – I assigned frequent short essays – was often thoughtful and sincere. They were happy to share what they were learning about the industry and the union, though there was sometimes a kind of self-censorship when it came to talking about the union – no one wanted to be seen as disloyal. It was a labor of Sisyphus, I could see the enormous potential for popular education, but it was beyond my reach: the institutional context and the political culture of the union made it impossible.

It was at this time that I was hired by the Association for Union Democracy (AUD), a small non-profit organization that helps workers defend their democratic rights as union members. My job assignment was to create an education program and rebuild the AUD website. At AUD I finally got to really put popular education into practice, starting the organization's “Union Democracy Worker Education” project. AUD's special role as an organization that facilitates and supports workers as they create their own movements, but does not attempt to lead them, freed me from some of the contradictions of worker education as a tool for organizing. But that is another story, again outside of the realm of university-sponsored worker education. (See The Workers Inspiration)

After two years at the IBEW apprenticeship program, my contract was not renewed. I don't know if it was because of my work at the Association for Union Democracy or my use of material about union democracy and reform in a course on Labor and the Law, but it would not surprise me if it were.

Luckily, soon after leaving the IBEW apprenticeship program I was hired part-time to teach courses in labor studies and economics at the Queens College Worker Education Extension Center in Manhattan. Queens College is one of the City University of New York's elite senior colleges. At that time, the Worker Education Extension Center was part of Queens College's Joseph Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies. The Murphy Institute publishes the academic journal The New Labor Forum and offers a “Union Semester” program in which college students spend a semester studying and working on the staff of one of several New York City unions.

Other CUNY colleges offer worker education, in particular City College, which runs the Center for Worker Education, and Brooklyn College which has a Graduate Center for Worker Education. But, in recent years the Murphy Institute has become a “university-wide center and entry point for workers into CUNY's 1,200 academic programs, 19 campuses, and diverse educational resources.” The Worker Education Center has grown too, and is now part of the School of Professional Studies at CUNY's Graduate School and University Center, with programs for members of several different unions, including the Teachers, Operating Engineers, and Transport Workers unions.

The students I worked with at the Worker Education Extension Center were civil servants in New York City agencies and members of Local 1181 of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), and District Council 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), two of the biggest public sector unions. The typical student was a middle-aged African-American woman with children, coming to class after working her full time job. (Schnee, 2007)

Workers came to the Center for a variety reasons, and often without a clear goal at the outset. The main motivation was the fact that a Bachelors degree was required for advancement to many higher-level positions in City agencies. The program schedule and content was designed for workers and the unions reimbursed their members for much of the tuition, making it an attractive option for workers returning to school after many years. All of the courses I taught were “writing intensive” courses which focused on developing students skills.

Like most of my coworkers, I was a part-time lecturer. I was a member of the Professional Staff Congress, though again with no job security and not enough hours to qualify for benefits. The Center provided an important space for maintaining a left-labor culture and resources for labor reformers – mostly through the jobs it provided to teachers who were also activists, but also through its small library, through the meeting space it provided for organizations like the Labor Party.

The Extension Center was a fascinating context in which to teach with overlapping dynamics of race, class, gender, national origin, religion and political ideology. Unlike the HVAS, at the WEEC faculty and administrators focused on making the education rigorous and relevant to students' interests and needs. Teachers had some paid staff development time that we used to reflect on our work and develop materials to help orient new teachers. Many of the teachers and staff were activists in labor, community, and environmental movements, and the program provided a space for education that addressed social problems. (Schnee, 2007)

Faculty and students had minimal interaction with the unions that co-sponsored the program, seeing union officers only at graduation ceremonies, or when a union officer taught a class. In my experience, the union staff and officers did little to connect the program to organizing or use it to promote worker participation. Some students who were stewards on their jobs did use the classes to urge their fellow students to get involved in union activities, but it was not a regular occurrence. In a nutshell, the priority at the Extension Center was helping workers succeed academically. Along the way, many faculty also sought to develop dialogue with students about workplace or social problems, but this was a question of individual efforts. To the degree that the administrators of the program hired them and encouraged them, it can be said that the program supported linking education to solving the “Labor Problem.” But this was not an explicit goal of the program and was not an organized effort.

At its best, the Center provided a safe space in which students and teachers could share various strategies, interests, cultures and ideologies and explore possible missions for worker education. Because the mission of worker education at the Extension Center was not clearly defined – creating some frustration and a sense of aimlessness for many students – students and teachers filled the void finding direction in organizations and activism more relevant to them: chiefly their churches and community organizations and families. For all the good work that was done and the remarkable potential for organizing, worker education remained fixed within the boundaries of academic pursuits and dreams of career advancement. The Labor Problem continued, unsolved.


University-based and union sponsored worker education programs present an enormous opportunity for popular education, but the institutional, ideological and personal limits that shape these programs combine to make popular education difficult, if not impossible, to practice. Where worker education is free of these constraints, for example in workers centers or independent organizations like the Association for Union Democracy, it makes a valuable contribution to regenerating the workers movement in the U.S. Nonetheless, university-based and union sponsored worker education programs remain important spaces for dialogue and inquiry with workers, in which the limits placed on worker education can be identified and challenged.


Kate Bronfenbrenner and Rob Hickey, Blueprint for Change: A National Assessment of Winning Union Organizing Strategies. (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Office of Labor Education Research, 2003).

Beverly Burke, Jo Jo Geronimo et al, Education for Changing Unions (Toronto, Canada: Between the Lines, 2002)

JATP (Joint Apprenticeship and Training Program) (

Matt Noyes, The Workers Inspiration: Popular Education for Union Democracy. (

Annelise Orleck, Common Sense and a Little Fire (North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.)

David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. (Rev. ed. London and New York: Verso Books, 1999).

Emily Schnee, Teetering at the Fulcrum: Possibilities and Constraints in a College Worker Education Program. (unpublished PhD DissertationGraduate Faculty in Urban Education, City University of New York, 2007)

Jean Y. Tussey (ed.), Eugene V. Debs Speaks (NY: Pathfinder Press, 1972), 57-58. (Thanks to Charlie Post for helping track down this letter.)

Websites of Worker Education Programs cited:

Adult Learning Center, LaGuardia Community College (CUNY)

The Center for Worker Education at The Joseph Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies (CUNY)

Center for Worker Education, City College (CUNY)

Consortium for Worker Education

Graduate Center for Worker Education, Brooklyn College (CUNY)

Union Democracy Worker Education Program, Association for Union Democracy

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