Labor Politics and Labor Education

by John Dewey | January 9, 1929

The recent condemnation of the Brookwood Labor College by the American Federation of Labor brings to the foreground the question of the future of adult education in connection with the labor movement. The issue is rendered especially acute because of the way in which the condemnation was effected; it was a scholastic lynching. Methods were employed which are not tolerated today in so-called “capitalistic” private institutions, where accused persons are entitled to a hearing before condemnation can ensue. This phase of the matter has received attention in the press, but the extent to which the future of workers’ education in this country is involved has not had corresponding publicity. Nor has the bearing of the Brookwood incident upon the prospects of organized labor itself under its present political management come to the notice of any large part of the public. A brief résumé of the leading facts, preliminary to a statement of these two larger aspects of the matter, is accordingly in place.

Early in August, the executive council of the American Federation of Labor issued a resolution calling upon labor unions to cease support of the Brookwood school. The charges made against it were that it had strongly communistic sympathies and, presumably, affiliations; that disloyalty to the American Federation of Labor was inculcated among its students; that “sex” occupied a large place in its teachings, and that religion was freely criticized and anti-religious views promulgated. The action was taken without any investigation of the school; without submitting charges to the faculty and students, and without giving opportunity for a reply. Protests naturally followed the action of the Executive Council, from members of the school, and from many others, both “intellectuals” and working members and officers in unions belonging to the American Federation of Labor, many of the latter being graduates of the College.

The answers received by those who protested were to the effect that the Executive Council had acted upon satisfactory evidence. But there was still no publication of the evidence and no responsible indication of its source, beyond the statement that it came from former students at Brookwood itself. No hearing was granted the faculty of the school nor its directors, all of them good labor unionists. The action of the New Orleans convention in refusing to return the resolution to the Executive Council was the logical outcome of the course previously followed. The Council had taken steps which made contrary action possible only if the delegates were ready to declare war on the official management of the Federation. Under the circumstances, it is almost surprising that as many as one-fourth of the delegates were not in favor of confirmation. Meantime, while communist organs were adding a note of humor by denouncing the College as a bourgeois “cloak for the reactionary labor fakers,” organs of the American Federation of Labor’s inner machine were replying to the charge of violation of academic freedom and failure to give a hearing, by asserting that since the College was not under the Federation, the issue was in no way involved. To the protest of the teachers’ unions affiliated with the Federation (the members of the faculty being themselves one of the local unions), which were not in any way consulted or heard, these same organs replied that since the College was not under the Federation, there was no question of jurisdiction involved, and they even went so far as to state that while it was the duty of the Council to warn the unions against the subversive conduct of the school, it would have been outside of its jurisdiction to subject the faculty of the school to a trial such as would be involved in giving them a hearing!

These are the bare external facts. While the “evidence” was not submitted, it became clear in the course of discussion that it consisted of letters from five former members of the school; there was no difficulty in identifying the five, although their names, in accordance with the arbitrary star-chamber nature of the whole proceeding, remained officially anonymous. It is significant that although the school has been in existence about seven years, the five in question were all at the College at the same time, last year, and had formed a notoriously disaffected clique. Without going into personalities, it may be asserted that an investigation would have revealed that each person had what he thought was a personal grievance. Anybody who knows anything about schools and students is aware that five out of a total hundred and twenty-five students, present and past, is a small number to become disgruntled. The number is more significant, because of the hearty denial of the insinuations and charges that came from the rest of the graduates and from the present student body. The graduate of the College who led the opposition on the floor of the New Orleans convention, himself a vice-president of the Massachusetts Federation, had previously put in writing a strong endorsement of the educational policies of the school, ended by saying that “it increased his devotion and loyalty to the labor movement.” Each item of the official indictment was specifically contradicted by students. It is also worth noting that the College has the unusual provision of special and officially recognized periods at which the policies and teachings of the school are freely discussed and criticized.

Even this mere summary must raise the question: What is back of such conduct? What does it portend for the future of workers’ education and for the present and prospective organized labor movement under the tutelage of the inclusive Mr. Woll?

A few words first regarding the educational spirit of Brookwood. The official statement of the College is that it "aims to train active members of labor organizations for more intelligent and efficient service to their organizations." Only persons recommended by labor organizations are admitted as students. The testimony of all but the five disgruntled persons is to the effect that it achieves this end. There is and has been no concealment that the College stands for liberal ideas and ideals. Part of the same official statement says that Brookwood thinks of the labor movement as "having for its ultimate goal the good life for all men in a social order free from exploitation and based upon control by the workers." Its prospectus also says that it endeavors "to teach students how to think, not to tell them what to think." In accordance with this principle, free discussion is encouraged. The College, more than most educational institutions of whatever sort, has been truly educational in living up to its effort to lead students to think—which means, of course, to think for themselves. The action of the American Federation of Labor's administrative machine, in itself and in its mode of execution, is a warning that it does not want this sort of education; it regards it as a danger and menace. This is the issue upon the educational side. One of the damning indictments brought by representatives of the machine at New Orleans was precisely a quotation of a statement to the same effect as that cited above regarding the ultimate ideal and goal of the labor movement as a social force. It is no wonder that fraternal representatives of the British labor movement at New Orleans heard with amazement what is the official policy of the British Labor party not only disavowed, but used as a final condemnation of a workers' school.

What about the official management of organized labor when it openly repudiates a system of free education aiming to teach labor leaders to think independently, rather than to repeat officially stamped stereotypes? What is the nature of a management that finds such a method a menace to it? This brings us to the other side of the picture. Mr. Matthew Woll has been the leading spirit in the whole affair. Who and what is he?

He is President of the Photo-Engravers Union, Vice-President of the American Federation of Labor, and member of its Executive Council; Secretary of the Committee on International Labor Relations; Chairman of the Committee on Resolutions and of the permanent Committee on Education; President of the International Labor Press, which, through the medium of the International Labor News Service, controls the labor news that reaches the public (that the "labor editors" of metropolitan dailies find it useful to stand in with the administrative machine of the American Federation of Labor will be easily understood); Director of the Legal Bureau of the Federation; President of the International Sportsmanship Brotherhood—an organization to cooperate with the “welfare” departments of large employers, and President of the Union Labor Life Insurance Company, the organization through which organized labor has entered the insurance field. The record indicates that Mr. Woll is an able and energetic man as well as a busy one. He has the main strings of administration gathered in his hands. The record is incomplete, however, until the most significant fact of all is added, namely, that he is Acting President of the National Civic Federation.

It would require much more than the space which this article can occupy to record the attitude of the Civic Federation toward labor. If the reader is not in a position to take "judicial notice" of it, it may be asserted that examination of its history, capable of documented proof, exhibits constant antagonism to the aims of aggressive unionism. It is significant of the consistent spirit of its conduct that Mark Hanna wrote a letter in which he said that he desired no better monument than the fact that he was chosen as the first president of the Civic Federation.

There is no evidence that Mr. Woll has used his position to alter the policies of the National Civic Federation toward organized labor. On the contrary, he has subtly employed his dual official position to cramp or paralyze action on the part of the Federation of Labor that is not in line with the policies of the Civic Federation. Positive confirmation, aside from the negative evidence of total absence of protest, is found in the history of old-age pensions, state and federal, an idea actively sponsored by the American Federation of Labor, when it had the militant leadership of Gompers, but skillfully side-tracked in the consulship of Woll. Equally significant is the fact that he is a member of a commission of the Civic Federation, on Industrial Inquiry, and Chairman of one of its sub-committees, the avowed purpose of which is to find a modus vivendi between employers having company unions and the regular labor unions. Considering that organized labor in general regards company unions as its most serious present foe, this fact speaks for itself.

It is not surprising that Mr. Woll's influence in the American Federation of Labor is regarded with great favor by reactionary economic persons, or that the American Federation of Labor, so far as it has come under the control of his dominating administrative machine, is no longer cursed as revolutionary and subversive, but is blessed as a constructive, safe and patriotic organization. Nor is it surprising that the minority in the American Federation of Labor that retains allegiance to former aggressive policies is becoming restive, and is asking to whom Mr. Woll gives his loyalty, to the employers’ associations and their financial allies, which dominate the Civic Federation, or to organized labor, and whether the policy of Mr. Woll is not to paralyze the workers’ movement by turning the American Federation of Labor into an adjunct of the policies of the Civic Federation.

 

Incidentally, a dubious significance is attached to Mr. Woll’s affiliations because of his activity in suppressing a resolution of censure of the activities of the Chicago Institute for Research in Land Economics and Public Utilities, introduced by Chicago labor delegates because of evidence that the Institute was supported by speculative real-estate interests and public utilities and was working in their behalf. That Mr. Woll is not incapable of irony upon occasion is seen in the fact that he appealed to the principle of free speech and academic freedom as ground for exempting the Institute from unfavorable notice by the Federation! He also ran true to form in softening the resolution of censure of the propaganda activities of the light and power trust in schools and colleges, by deleting specific reference to “power interests” and substituting the more innocuous word “special interests.”

Possibly there are persons who will regard the state of affairs described (only in small part) as of no great importance to others than the Federation of Labor itself. If the Federation likes that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing it likes, will be the cynical comment. But those who believe that organized labor should be a great force in social reconstruction will feel differently. Personally, I believe that, provided there is intelligent leadership, it contains factors of fundamental importance in bringing about a better social order. That Mr. Woll’s status is a force in politics is revealed in the fact that, although the Federation of Labor has previously endorsed some presidential candidates, he was an active factor in securing refusal of endorsement to Governor Smith in the last campaign, in spite of the fact that most persons regard the latter as the best friend labor has had in high political office. Perhaps Mr. Woll, as well as Mr. Hoover, regarded Governor Smith as a Socialist—an opinion no more silly than the charges of Communism he brings so freely against any persons opposed to the domination of labor by his administrative machine. In any case, the facts cited are relevant to the inert character of the present labor movement and to the charges brought against a Labor College guilty of believing that an educational movement should train leaders who think independently and should thereby help in ushering in a social order free from exploitation.

In connection with the educational phase of the matter, it is significant that the motion of condemnation of Brookwood was sponsored at New Orleans by Mr. Mahon, President of the Street Railway Employees’ Union. Mr. Mahon is the man who, in behalf of that union, signed an agreement with Mr. Mitten which guaranteed immunity to the company unions of the Philadelphia traction interests controlled by that gentleman. The quid pro quo was that Mr. Mitten would not oppose regular unions in any further traction developments in other cities in which he had a controlling voice, provided those unions adopted the standards already in force in Mr. Mitten’s company unions. It happens that Mr. Muste, the head of Brookwood, had incurred the antagonism of Mr. Mahon by public criticism of the policy involved in the agreement. Another point of educational import is the influential position occupied by Mr. Woll as chairman of the Education Committee of the American Federation of Labor, its only permanent committee. He is now engaged in gathering under his brooding wings the Workers’ Education Bureau, having introduced a resolution that this Bureau have a board of directors entirely elected by the American Federation of Labor and international unions. At present three out of eleven are approved by the Executive Council of the American Federation of Labor. Even more important is the fact that resolution, if and when adopted, would deprive state and city federations, local unions and district councils, from representation. If he succeeds in getting this measure through the next convention of the Workers’ Bureau (an organization formed by liberal labor elements independently of the American Federation of Labor), he can congratulate himself that labor education has been made safe for the political machine of the Federation which he so skillfully conducts. At present, some of the labor schools are conducted by men who are Brookwood graduates. The condemnation of Brookwood is a warning to them that they may be next in line. Will Mr. Woll’s next step be to discipline them? Any activities of his in this direction will be worthy of attention.

It cannot be too generally understood that the condemnation of Brookwood is no isolated event. It is a part of the policy to eliminate from the labor movement the schools and influences that endeavor to develop independent leaders of organized labor who are interested in a less passive and more social policy than that now carried on by the American Federation of Labor in its close alliance with the National Civic Federation. Opposition to the official political machine of the former is to be interpreted as enmity to organized labor itself; that any opposition is ascribed to Bolshevist sympathies is in line with the resort to cheap epithets currently employed to discredit any liberal movement. What will become of the organized labor movement in case such policies continue to grow?

This issue as it affects education and the future of labor in this country is the real issue involved in the Brookwood incident.

This article originally ran in the January 9, 1929, issue of the magazine.

 

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