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Education in the Name of Social Transformation

Teaching Workers

by MICHAEL D. YATES

Karl Marx’s famous dictum sums up my teaching philosophy: “The philosophers of the world have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” As I came to see it, Marx had uncovered the inner workings of our society, showing both how it functioned and why it had to be transcended if human beings were to gain control over their lives and labor. Disseminating these ideas could help speed the process of human liberation. From a college classroom, I thought that I could not only interpret the world, I could indeed change it.

Thinking is one thing; the trick is bringing thoughts to life. How, actually, does a person be a radical teacher? How, for example, can students be shown the superior insights of Marxian economics in classes that have always been taught from the traditional or neoclassical perspective—taught, in fact, as if the neoclassical theory developed by Adam Smith and his progeny is the gospel truth? My college expected me to teach students the “principles” of economics: that people act selfishly and independently of one another, that this self-centeredness generates socially desirable outcomes. And further, that capitalism, in which we, in fact, do act out of self-interest, is therefore the best possible economic system. Had I refused to do this and taught only Marxian economics, I doubt I could have kept my job.

My students were mostly the children of factory workers, miners, and other laborers, just the young people I wanted to reach and move to action. However, nearly all of them were hostile to radical perspectives, having been taught that such views were un-American. Their animosity was sometimes palpable, especially when I pointed out the many things they did not know about our country’s unsavory relationships with the rest of the world. A retired Marine told me that, after we watched a particularly radical film about U.S. imperialism, he wanted to come down the aisle and strangle me.

My own timidity also made it difficult for me to advocate revolutionary ideas. The neoclassical way of thinking has a strong hold on those who have taken the time to learn it. It is elegant, precise, mathematical. I was half afraid that the neoclassical theory would prove capable of addressing the questions that I believed only radical economics could answer. I gave it a legitimacy it didn’t deserve.

So I proceeded in a cautious manner, focusing at first on what economists call “market failures.” These occur when the egotistic pursuits of the market’s buyers and sellers do not lead to socially desirable results. An example is ecological destruction. In a “free” market, companies have strong incentives to wreak havoc on nature. Because it is often costless for them to pollute, that is what they do, shifting the damage caused by their production onto others, who suffer higher health expenses, foul air, and dirty water. Since the market does not respond to our need for a livable environment, it fails socially, making it necessary for the government to compel the polluters to behave in a publicly responsible way. Discussions of market failures allowed me to show my students that a capitalist economic system has to be regulated by the government if it is to satisfy human needs.

The problem with this tactic was that it led to a liberal and not a radical advocacy. My growing hostility to capitalism demanded more than a liberal critique. My next strategy was to pit the neoclassical and the radical theories directly against one another. I pointed out that economists did not agree on what made capitalist economies tick. I explained the neoclassical theory as objectively as possible. I then used the market failures to develop a criticism of mainstream economics, especially the notion that the government is a neutral entity that acts to regulate the market to the benefit of society as a whole. Once I suggested that the weight of money in politics made this unlikely, it was easy to switch gears and enter into an examination of Marxian economics.

This comparison approach also proved unsatisfactory. The neoclassical theory is difficult for students to learn, so I had to spend too many hours analyzing it, leaving not enough time for the radical model. Therefore, I did two things. I simply stopped teaching the neoclassical mainstays, called micro and macro- economics, freeing me to develop new courses. This was possible because I now had tenure and was the senior teacher in my division. I taught the Political Economy of Latin America, a subject amenable to a radical analysis and one in which there is a large body of literature rooted in the political economy of Marx. I also developed a set of courses in labor relations built on the supposition that there is an inherent conflict between employees and their employers, rooted in the nature of our economic system. In these classes, the only theoretical constructs employed were those of Marx and his modern adherents.

For a decade, teaching radical economic ideas pleased me, but then disillusion set in. In the early 1980s, the steel mills in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where I taught, began to close. Workers were forced to leave the area, and as a result, my working class students disappeared. Teaching kids who were the first in their families to attend college, as I had been, had made my efforts seem worthwhile. I got along well with them, even those who disagreed with me. I managed to radicalize some. Unfortunately, the college began to replace the locals with middle-class teenagers from the Pittsburgh suburbs. They seemed to me like alien beings, so unconcerned with learning that they appeared proud of their ignorance. To make matters worse, the student revolt of the 1960s had generated a counterattack by the leaders of business (who dominate the schools to a degree seldom examined or understood) and government. The humanities and social sciences began to lose ground to career-oriented fields of study; soon, business and technical programs proliferated. These changes, which coincided with the collapse of the post-Second World War economic boom, created understandable fears among young people, who were easily persuaded to view education as an investment in their “human capital,” and major in something practical.

Disinterested students and a reactionary political situation on campuses made me wonder what useful purpose teaching undergraduates served. Perhaps advocating radical ideas in college classrooms was not a radical act. It would not push the society toward greater egalitarianism and more control over the economy by ordinary people. Certainly, creating a new world was the furthest thing from my students’ minds. Nothing I could say would change them very dramatically. Compounding matters was the growing match between a much more conservative ideological climate and the recently hired faculty. Most were too cowed by authority and fearful that dissent would impact their careers negatively to do anything except keep their noses to the grindstone. A few said they would make trouble once they got tenure, but none ever did.

Economic necessity compelled me to continue teaching, but conscience forced me to do more. I had never confined myself solely to the classroom; I had helped the maintenance and custodial workers at my college to form a labor union and tried valiantly to get the faculty to follow suit. However, now the campus was not enough, so in 1980, I began educating working people, in a Labor Studies program at Penn State University. The first classes were held in Johnstown, but eventually, I taught throughout Western Pennsylvania and occasionally in Ohio, with venues in union halls, schools, and motels. Classes were noncredit, typically meeting for three hours on a weekday evening. My students did every kind of work: steelworkers, postal clerks, mail carriers, oil workers, chemical plant laborers, autoworkers, coal miners, secretaries, librarians school teachers, firefighters, nurses, plumbers, operating engineers, bricklayers, carpenters, machinists, glass workers, and many more.

These early forays into worker education soon led to others. Sometime in the late 1990s, I was asked to teach a class in a graduate (Masters) program at the University of Massachusetts, one aimed at union members, mainly officers and staff persons.  Then, in 2001, I left my college teaching job, and Karen and I began an itinerant life, moving around the United States. However, labor education remained a part of my work. Besides the graduate class, I taught in an undergraduate Labor Studies program in Manhattan and online labor courses for a community college and several universities. Today, I only do the MA class, each January for two weeks. I abandoned the online work when it stopped being devoted solely to labor-oriented students or came to be used as a way to exploit cheap labor and get rid of regular classroom faculty.

There are many things I have enjoyed about labor education. The students often have been like the people with whom I grew up; the older students sometimes reminded me of my father and his factory workmates. All of them have had job experience and so understood work better than my college students. When I talk about the labor law or unemployment, they bring interesting personal experiences to the discussions. What I teach has immediate practical relevance to them, and I can use this to get them to understand more complex and abstract economic and political ideas. For example, I once taught collective bargaining to a group of men working in a plant that made air conditioners. They had been forced by their international union to make concessions during the term of their collective bargaining agreement. They videotaped the classes and showed the tapes to co-workers. Then they ran a slate of candidates in their local union elections and won office. Using what they had learned, they successfully negotiated the return of the wages and benefits they had been compelled to concede. One of the new officers went on to get a masters’ degree in labor relations and then taught in the same program in which I had worked. These classes sometimes have been catalysts for the rebuilding of long dormant local labor movements, and they have raised the consciousness of the students.

Although many of my early worker students had not graduated from college and were often rank-and-file union members, they grasped radical ideas more quickly and deeply than did my college pupils. This is because these had a greater usefulness to them, and they perceived the arguments through the lenses of working people’s eyes. Two examples come to mind. In a class in labor economics, we were discussing the differences between the neoclassical and the Keynesian theories of unemployment. After two three-hour classes, one of the students wrote a prize-winning essay on the subject for his local union newspaper. In a class in labor law, we were examining the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution in the context of employee drug testing. At my college, most students took it for granted that employers have the right to randomly drug test employees. They had been so thoroughly indoctrinated that they did not think of the issue in terms of civil liberties. The workers, on the other hand, argued vehemently against drug testing under any circumstances. Most of them said that they would refuse, as a matter of principle, to be tested.

The men and women in the MA program do have college degrees, and they are typically union officers or staff persons. I encourage them to take what they have learned and teach their members. Unions have done a woeful job of educating the rank-and-file, not least because union leaders often fear an educated membership that might turn against them. Here again, there have been successes. Students have organized classes in their union locals; one offered a bilingual course so that Spanish-speaking immigrant laborers could attend, and another prepared labor history sessions for newly-apprenticed carpenters in Manhattan.

All of this is not to say that my worker students have been perfect. Far from it. They have been subjected to the same kind of conservative advocacy from family, media, teachers, and employers to which all of us have been exposed. Racism, sexism, and homophobia have reared their ugly heads. Not all have been happy with my radical views, although there has been a remarkable transformation over the past two decades in the willingness and eagerness with which almost all have entertained—and many have embraced—a radical analysis of capitalism.

Teaching workers has been education as I envisioned it when I first entered the classroom forty-four years ago: students coming to class voluntarily, enthusiastically participated in their learning, and then going out to apply what they have learned to their lives. They appreciate my commitment to teaching; applause and gifts at the end of a course have been common. And I found that these were students from whom I could learn new things as well. My labor education classes have inspired me to write several books, all of which are aimed at the general working public. Through these, I have made contact with working-class groups around the country and have had the opportunity to give talks, conduct seminars, and help in union-organizing campaigns. I often get requests from working people asking for my help in legal or economic matters. Nothing comparable happened in my college classes.

The best thing about teaching workers is that I have not had to abide or feel pressured by the canons of academe. I have not had to worry that my students will not know what is expected of them when they take intermediate-level courses. Each labor class is self-contained, with no prerequisites. I do not have to maintain a false air of objectivity. I do not have to say, for example, that economists disagree about how capitalism works; instead, I can say what I believe, forthrightly, that the neoclassical theory represents the economics of the employing class and that the attempt to make it into something else, a set of universal truths, is propaganda. I can posit a radical explanation of capitalism. This has been invariably well received, even when in 1980s Johnstown, I had to call Marx’s analysis of capitalism the “workers’ theory” to avoid charges of being a communist. The idea that profits arise out of the unpaid “surplus” labor time of workers resonates because it fits with the actual work experiences of the students; it helps them to understand what they are, what forces and persons are responsible for their circumstances, and what they might do to combat them. Similarly, when I begin a discussion of our labor power as a commodity, we soon enough conclude that to our employers we are mere costs of production, to be minimized by whatever means necessary. It is but a short step to have everyone agree that workplaces are war zones and that only collective struggle has any chance of victory. In the worker classrooms, we can openly address such matters, and I can be the radical advocate I think I must be.

In the college classroom, I taught as I did because the college was structured so that a more honest and direct approach was impossible. Academe, by its nature, limits, constrains, absorbs, or punishes direct radicalism. And if it does allow some radical advocacy, the “higher learning” is so far removed from the lives of working people that this is bound to have little social impact. It will not help to move society in an egalitarian and democratic direction. Worker education, on the other hand, offers much greater possibilities, precisely because it is directly connected to the lives of the working class majority, who, in the end, must be the moving force of social transformation.

I don’t know how much longer I will be a labor educator. It is hard, time-consuming, and mentally and physically draining work. Guilt has probably kept me at it these past few years. There is an extraordinary shortage of people trained in economics who could effectively teach the working class. And among those few who could, hardly anyone wants to do so. I have urged radicals to teach workers whenever an opportunity presents itself. My pleas have been met always with a deafening silence. We hear a lot these days of the rise of a new core of young left-wing intellectuals, well educated, attuned to Marx, and alienated from bourgeois society. It is to be hoped that they will not only advocate for radical change in their magazines, blogs, and essays, but will embrace the working class, embed themselves in it and write and act, for workers, with workers, as workers, educating those who toil as they educate themselves. We all do what we can to make a better world. But those with knowledge have a duty to spread the word directly to those without whose struggles no such world will ever come to be. I have tried my best. Maybe now it is time for those younger and more energetic to take my place.

Michael D. Yates is the Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. He can be reached at mikedjyates@msn.com. He welcomes comments.