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In recent years unions and universities have been cooperating more closely in developing degree program for union members, but many barriers remain to block access to higher education for these adult workers. This article examines the experience of the Labor Studies Program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston during the 1980s and its attempts to make access to a college degree program more meaningful for labor union members. This report emphasizes the importance of working with local unions, developing a supportive advisory board, gaining tuition support, designing flexible instructional activities, crediting work experience, democratizing the curriculum, and combining labor studies with liberal arts. With structural reforms m higher education based on the needs of adult workers, university degree programs can connect with the interests of union members and the concerns of the labor movement.
During the 1980s labor leaders began advocating for credit-based programs at public colleges and universities as a means for empowering officers and staff and as a basic entitlement for rank-and-file members.
The AFL-CIO recognized this growing union interest in university education and in 1983 joined with the American Council on Education to create a Labor/Higher Education Council to foster closer relationships between unions and universities. The discussion of access for union workers to higher education became more focussed. In 1987 President John Joyce of the Bricklayers told the Council that only a small percentage of his members had attended college, but that many of them were interested in programs flexible enough to meet their needs. He criticized the unwarranted assumption that workers wanted only career-ladder programs. indeed, if higher education programs aimed primarily "to create a managerial and occupational elite, " then, Joyce suggested, "only a few workers" would be involved.(1)
While union leaders like Joyce called for innovative degree programs and expressed a preference for broad liberal arts education, they also complained that universities, even the public institutions they helped to build, failed to provide the access and flexible programming their members required. "Though the hallowed halls of academe are made of brick, stone, or block, those who lay brick are blocked from educational opportunity," Joyce told university leaders. He said that the five million Americans who work in the construction industry and contribute over $300 billion to the national economy have "been largely ignored and under-served."(2) Elitist attitudes about "hard hats" combined with structural barriers, like the rigidity of course-based scheduling, reduced participation in higher education by construction workers, according to Joyce. Even labor studies degree programs with prounion faculty and work-related curricula have had difficulty attracting significant numbers of active members as students.
Our experience in developing a Bachelor of Arts degree in labor studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston suggests that if higher education can be restructured and reformed, college access can be made meaningful to unionized workers.(3) Our experience also indicates that trade unionists will respond to a degree program that connects new learning with life experience and that combines critical inquiry with advocacy. Most of our students are motivated by a commitment to the labor movement and by the need to become more thoughtful, effective advocates for working people. The program's emphasis on advocacy connects with the movement-inspired goals and work-related problems union workers bring to college. Therefore, its appeal for many students depends on recreating the link "between workers' education and progressive social action" forged by unions like the International Ladies Garment Workers seventy years ago.(4)
In twelve years fifty trade unionists have earned their B.A. degrees in labor studies from the University of Massachusetts. At present seventy-five students, representing twenty-six unions, are enrolled in our program pursuing the same baccalaureate degree. We have gained significant political and financial support from Boston-area unions, especially those headed by our graduates. The program did not begin with strong support from union leadership; this came later as trade union members worked their way through the program and told others that it provided a free space and a supportive culture in which workers could share their experiences and reflect on the past, study together, and enter a dialogue about how to face the future. Ultimately, the success of the program's graduates made it possible to mobilize a strong advisory board and gain the support of state and local union officials. Despite serious cutbacks at the university, labor studies has flourished and maintained its autonomy. Rather than pushing labor studies into "decline," the political and economic crisis facing the labor movement during the 1980s has generated special interest in education among our students.(5)
The following report describes our program in terms of how it has addressed the following challenges: first, building a working …