(fwd from Michael Yates) working class students

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Sun Nov 16 20:03:43 MST 2003

This was recently posted to pen-l in response to a set of posts under
the heading "Step into the Classroom."

  I have been a labor educator since 1980.  I have taught working class
  students, mostly local union activists, through labor studies programs
  at Penn State University, West Virginia University, The University of
  Massachusetts at Amherst, Cornell, University of Indiana, Community
  College of Baltimore County, the University of Oregon, and the
  University of Hawaii.  I have also taught course and seminars under
  the auspices of specific unions including the United Farm Workers (for
  whom I worked in 1977), the United Steel Workers, the Aluminum, Brick
  and Glass Workers (now part of the Steelworkers), the United Auto
  Workers, The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the Oil,
  Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union, the International Longshore and
  Warehouse Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Union
  of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees, the Service
  Employees International Union, and probably some others I cannot

Over these 23 years, I have noticed a sea change in the things it is
possible to discuss in these classes.  In the early 1980s I had to be
careful about my own politics.  I had to sneak Marx in through the back
door.  I called Marx's economic theory the "workers' theory"!  I was
criticized because Philip Agee appeared in a film I showed.  I had to be
careful about the issue of union democracy.  This is not to say that the
students weren't very liberal in their thinking (with the exception of
race and gender in some of the classes), even radical in some ways.  But
the leadership was still stuck in the cold war, so to speak.  The first
time I taught at UMass, some labor leaders were apparently leery about
my radical writing; as one person told me a "red flag" went up when
certain folks saw my application.

But in the 1990s and today, things are dramatically different.  Students
always saw through the class bias of neoclassical economics, that it was
largely an ideological construct aimed at getting people to accept all
sorts of bad things.  But now radical ideas can be discussed as a mater
of course.  Marx's name can be freely mentioned, and his ideas can be
praised for the remarkable insights they give to working people.  I can
talk about the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba and explain the may things
these nations accomplished through socialism, as well as their problems.
I have used two of my books in these classes, and both have been
extremely well-received.  My current book, "Naming the System:
Inequality and Work in the Global Economy" would have marked me as a
communist and unsuited for labor education twenty three years ago, but
today, while it might mark me as a red, elicits a very positive
response.  This is not to say that the top leadership would like it.
They probably would not.  I sent copies of my book "Why Unions Matter"
to several union presidents, along with offers to speak to union members
for free, and never got a response, much less a thank you note.  But
among more grassroots leaders, radical ideas and books are gobbled up (a
big problem is getting adequate publicity, especially when you publish
with a small left-wing press like Monthly Review--which I do as matter
of principle).

Let me give two examples of recent receptivity of worker students to
radical ideas. In my last UMass class, students were upset that I didn't
get to Marx sooner than I did! One student kept whispering to a
classmate, "He's not there yet."  And in a class I did just yesterday
here in Oregon, a student asked "Are you going to talk about
alternatives to capitalism.  Are you going to talk about socialism?"  No
one batted an eye, and we had a great discussion.  I had developed a
Marxist explanation of how a capitalist economy functions and discussed
capital accumulation could be regulated to the benefit of workers.  We
discussed this, and everyone agreed that it would be extremely hard to
sustain progressive regulation over the long haul. All agreed to that
some sort of democratic control of production and distribution were
ultimately necessary.

Of course the students I get are especially motivated (the most recent
classes were on Friday evening and all day Saturday). But they will take
back what they learned and share it with coworkers, just as the students
in my old prison classes would use what they had learned to teach other
inmates.  I have had classes recorded or videotaped on many occasions.
Most working people are woefully ignorant of many aspects of the
economy, so knowledge is a powerful weapon.

I urge radicals to do labor education.  There are programs all around
the country, usually affiliated with a college or university.  Make
contacts with unions too and offer your services.  I still believe that
there can be no fundamental change in society unless a lot of ordinary
working people embrace it.  It is great to write articles and books and
have debate on these lists.  Teaching college students is invaluable
too.  But actively engaging the people is necessary too.

Michael Yates

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