Labor Study Groups: How, Can, or Do They Work?

Daniel J. Kelly I Labor Issues I Commentary I December 31st, 2013

I have one really big problem to overcome as I sit here writing this article: I can't tell you where I work. That would be a problem except that I'm going to provide just enough detail that the reader will still have a reasonable understanding of the subject. Additionally, the problems faced by employees at my workplace are not significantly different than those faced by working people anywhere in the United States.

I work in a factory but it's a factory that makes absolutely nothing in the way of a tangible commodity. The employees sit in the same place all day, tethered to two machines, and performing essentially the same tasks over and over again. The employees have practically no say over the conditions under which they work and are subject to ongoing surveillance. If you guessed that the "factory" in question is a 'call center' you'd be one hundred percent correct - and it is a factory. The two machines to which workers are tethered are a computer and a telephone. Of course the only "products" manufactured are little abstract packets of information. And those "packets" are worth a lot of money to a lot of powerful people. This call center/factory is a function of a public agency and its workers are, of course, public employees. A generation ago, the employees of this call center would have worked at actual factories that made things like electrical equipment, rototillers, hair brushes, and sausages. Those were the products that used to be made in the urban community where my call center is located. That was before capitalists figured out they could make a lot more money by moving operations to the Global South (or in some cases the American South). That gray, smoggy paradise of good-paying, union jobs in manufacturing is now just a memory to most Americans. On the other hand, most so-called "white-collar" jobs were long ago "proletarianized" and, nowadays, most good-paying, union jobs are found in the public sector.

The reason I can't name my exact workplace has a lot to do with the recent political attacks on public employees in general. If I were to publically disclose my employer's name in a written opinion piece, that might imply I'm speaking for this public agency rather than just for myself and, now that the neoliberal ideology has entered every workplace, it's better to be careful.

In early 2011, one of my fellow shop stewards, an old activist, approached me with the idea of starting a labor study group at our workplace. So, we gathered a small group of fellow employees to meet during lunch in order to read and discuss chapter one of Michael Yates' 2009 book, "Why Unions Matter." The reason we chose this book had more to do with the fact that my friend and I each owned a copy than anything to do with its content. That being said, Yates' book happens to be very good.

My friend, the fellow steward, became the initial coordinator of the group that consisted of four men and one woman. We scheduled our meetings for alternate Wednesdays from 12:30 PM to 1:00, which conveniently overlaps with our scheduled lunch time. The "coordinator" set up a program by which we'd each read the entire chapter and present an oral report. His instructions were that the oral reporters should stand in turn at the end of the meeting room table and deliver the report. No doubt he was trying to instill leadership qualities in each of us. Unfortunately, our initial attempt at a study group ended after only a few meetings.

We probably wouldn't have attempted to revive the study group several months later were it not for two events. At the final meeting of our first study group, I gave my personal report-back on the Yates book. I barely finished speaking when the lone woman in our group remarked, "this country needs a goddamn revolution!" Since most of my coworkers have always impressed me as a bit conservative, often voting against their own best interests, this was a response I had not counted on - especially since this woman was hardly what one would call a firebrand. Maybe there is still some revolutionary potential in the American working class, I thought.

Nonetheless, the labor study group languished for several months until the second event. This event was the rapid, spontaneous spread of the Occupy movement in late 2011. I had not counted on the second event either.

I had become actively involved in Occupy since the first planning meeting in my own city following the initial encampment in New York City. Early in October 2011, Occupy meetings in my community attracted hundreds of attendees. The accepted wisdom that the Occupy movement was made up mostly of upper middle-class white kids simply does not agree with my own experience. I encountered numerous working-class people at Occupy events throughout that initial month. What surprised me more was the keen interest shown in this movement by my co-workers. My fellow steward and I decided this would be an ideal time to try to resurrect the labor study group. This time, I took on the role of coordinator and, for our next book, I chose several sections of "Solidarity Divided" by Bill Fletcher Jr. and Fernando Gapasin, published by University of California Press in 2008. "Solidarity Divided" is, by most standards, a dense, academic text. I had found it a bit difficult to get through when I'd first read it myself. Thus, a few other union members suggested this was way too difficult a piece for my co-workers to handle, to which I always answered, "I just don't happen to think people are stupid; besides, I understood it and I'm really no smarter than anyone else who works here."

Our study group had, in the wake of Occupy, grown from six to about fifteen members. Yes, people complained that the text was difficult but, nevertheless, most of them read it and gave interesting reports (seated this time). We spent months on the book and responses ranged from denunciations of capitalism by a number of participants to one man who said he was a libertarian and nothing in that book had changed his mind.

In the months since then, our study group has leveled off to around six regular members. We've revisited "Why Unions Matter" (chapter three this time), and even started watching documentaries. One of the films we watched and discussed is "Class Dismissed," narrated by Ed Asner, which explores the mostly negative ways television portrays the American working class. Despite showing films in multiple 30-minute segments on a computer monitor in our union's office, people always return to see the conclusion. This is most encouraging.

I was also encouraged when I loaned a copy of "State of The Unions," a book by labor journalist Philip Dine. I had hoped the interested party would skim a few chapters and find a couple of ideas we could discuss in our meetings. He, instead, returned a couple of weeks later and said he'd been so fascinated with the book that he'd stayed up all night on a couple of occasions to finish reading it. He then delivered an incisive 30-minute report on its content.

In conclusion, I have to say that workers are hungry to learn more about the things that affect their status as a class, even if they don't put it in those words. While many of the people in my worksite have more formal education than many other working class people, I don't believe that alone is a deciding factor as to why they show an interest in studying labor. It's not the quantity of the education, but the content that makes the difference. If the U. S. working class is ever to become the transformative force it once was, workers will need to take the initiative to educate themselves. Specifically, they will have to understand their role, as a class, in the Neoliberal economy. The primary impediment to this understanding is the social and pol itical apathy born of a learned helplessness that undermines the aspirations of working-class people. One thing I learned from the Occupy movement is that when people's voices are heard they become aware of their immense potential for power. Do labor study groups work? My only answer is that anything which gives workers the chance to be honestly heard works.