Labor's Mind by Higbie Tobias;

Labor's Mind by Higbie Tobias;

Author:Higbie, Tobias;
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Published: 2018-01-09T16:00:00+00:00

Life Stories “in regulation style”

Like the well-known leaders who explained how they became rebels in 1922, and the editors who curated and argued over those narratives, rank-and-file partisans of the labor and radical movements told stories about the origins of their activism. Unlike those of their famous leaders, most of these stories have remained relatively invisible to historians. Many were printed in the pages of obscure newspapers or hidden in private journals and the administrative papers of labor colleges. Firsthand accounts of working-class experience had long been a staple of labor movement journalism, and during the 1920s they also became a key pedagogical tool for workers’ education. The result was fewer life stories focused on the cultivation of personal intellect and character than had been common in the late nineteenth century. When labor college faculty compiled nearly eighty personal narratives into the book I Am a Woman Worker (1936), for instance, they created a rich catalog of otherwise invisible experiences. The book offered fascinating insights into daily life inside factories; relations among workers, supervisors, and bosses; and the struggles of unionists in the years before the Wagner Act made the promotion of collective bargaining a national policy. But none of these accounts mention reading in more than a passing manner. The newspapers, pamphlets, libraries, and street speakers who filled the working-class public sphere remain hidden in the shadows while work, and the search for work, took center stage.44

Labor college students were no less avid readers than other working-class activists. The invisibility of reading and open political debate in their life narratives derived mainly from the institutional imperative of the labor schools, their leaders, and their sponsors. We can glean a more nuanced view of these young workers’ engagement with reading from the application forms and essays they submitted to gain admission to labor schools. Here they often struggled to balance the competing requirements to prove their intellectual preparation, on the one hand, and their status as bona fide industrial workers on the other. Application forms asked potential students to list books they had recently read and enjoyed and required a short essay on work experience. The result was sometimes two very different portraits of an applicant’s life. George McCray, a former Pullman porter from Chicago, studiously avoided the topic of reading in his work experience essay for the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers, yet his application listed Booker T. Washington, Karl Marx, and George Bernard Shaw among his favorite authors. After completing his summer program, he joined a teacher education program at the University of Chicago.45 In other cases, applicants’ work experience essays highlighted school, reading, and politics in addition to work. Kansas City autoworker John Alspaugh listed over thirty-five books he had recently read, mainly popular literature and social science, on his application to the Wisconsin school. His handwritten “History of Working Experience” started with a job hauling trash from the apartment building where his family lived when he was nine years old and ended with a job in the paint department of the Fisher Body auto plant.


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