Workers Education Project

views updated


Practically speaking, workers' education accounted for a tiny part of the federal government's New Deal emergency education programs—and was, because it yoked together the interests of American capitalism with those of left-oriented trade unions, a controversial enterprise at that. But these workers education programs played a key role in the development of a "labor culture" in the Popular Front movement in the United States.

Schools set up for the purpose of training working-class activists and intellectuals had been pioneered by the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and leftist labor unions, such as the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, the United Electrical Workers, and others. These education programs included both urban night schools and residential labor colleges, most famously the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, co-founded by Myles Horton and Don West. In particular, the growth of the labor movement during the 1930s had created a pressing need for trained leadership. From 1933 to 1942, these schools were able to receive some federal funding, and became what was called the Workers Education Project (the name changed in 1939 to the Workers Service Program). When the Work Projects Administration ended in 1942, labor unions attempted to continue the schools without government funding.

Hilda Smith, an education specialist who founded and directed Bryn Mawr's Summer School for Women Workers, was program director. The first funds went to hire unemployed teachers, working through relief agencies, to lead classes in adult literacy. As the number and variety of classes grew, local unions and community groups could request classes or speakers through a government sponsor, such as a state university or a state department of labor or education. The classes met in labor halls and in public schools. At its peak enrollment, 65,000 workers participated in approximately 3,000 classes. Classes in the social sciences, economics, and labor history were the most popular.

An early memo among Workers Education Project administrators, which would come to be widely circulated and quoted, differentiated the mandates of workers' education from adult education more generally: "Workers' education offers men and women workers in industry, business, domestic service and other occupations an opportunity to train themselves in clear thinking through the study of those questions closely related to their daily lives as workers and as citizens."



Bloom, Jon. "Workers Education." Encyclopedia of the American Left, 2nd edition, edited by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, and Dan Georgakas. 1998.

Denning, Michael. The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century. 1996.

Kornbluh, Joyce. A New Deal for Workers' Education: The Workers' Service Program, 1933–1942. 1987.

Rachel Rubin