UALE 2012
A Steelworker’s
Intellectual Journey:
Blast Furnace to University
By Mike Olszanski
March 2012
Paper presented a...
A way of teaching is never innocent. Every Pedagogy is implicated in
ideology, in a set of tactical assumptions about what...
I started at a Blast Furnace labor job at Inland Steel’s Indiana Harbor
Works, a union shop, right out of high school in 1...
At the same time, around 1970 I became active in Local 1010 of the United
Steelworkers Union. Raised in a pro-union family...
In the process I even got to visit Jimmy Carter’s White House on behalf of District
31, advocating a renewable solar and w...
Beginning with a one credit L290 Labor Studies class, “Steel at the
Crossroads.” in 1993, Professor Needleman created Swin...
But it was much more.
For Dr. Ruth Needleman, education for workers needs to be anything but
neutral. Ruth made it crystal...
Dr. Jim Lane’s History of the Viet Nam War class had Viet Nam combat
veterans and veteran anti-war activists debating the ...
Physically located across the hall from IUN’s Political Science department long
run by an extremely reactionary professor,...
Dr. Ruth Needleman, in bell hooks’ words, “employ[s] pedagogical
strategies that create ruptures in the established order,...
In Swingshift classes, students and professors decided collectively on the
questions we wanted to discuss. Black white and...
In the tradition of Horton, the jargon or “big words” of popular education,
terms like “praxis” “hegemony” etc., were defi...
The intellectual courage of our facilitator (leader, in the best sense of the
term) became contagious. Freed of the oppres...
The ideas of Freire, Horton, Hooks and popular educators from all times
and places came to life in the Swingshift College ...
For me as a student, Swingshift College courses enabled me to research the
history of my own union, to analyze the politic...
When Swingshift graduate Charlie Brooks replaced Cathy Hall as
Coordinator of Swingshift College in 2005, I worked with hi...
Pleasantly surprising is how far a frank discussion of the principles of
worker education Swingshift College attempts to e...
Bibliography
Burke, Bev, et al, Education For Changing Unions, Toronto: Between the Lines,
2002
Frère, Paulo and Horton, M...
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Journey of a steelworker uale conference presentation draft 7

  1. 1. UALE 2012 A Steelworker’s Intellectual Journey: Blast Furnace to University By Mike Olszanski March 2012 Paper presented at the Panel, “Workers and Working Class Students” at the 2012 Annual Conference of the United Association for Labor Education (UALE) Pittsburgh, PA The Swingshift College program at Indiana University Northwest 1993-2010, A university-based college credit program for working adults, inspired by Popular Education theories of Paulo Freire, Myles Horton and bell hooks, as experienced by student and staff member Mike Olszanski.
  2. 2. A way of teaching is never innocent. Every Pedagogy is implicated in ideology, in a set of tactical assumptions about what is real, what is good, what is possible, and how power ought to be distributed. (Sherry Linkon, 153 from Berlin, James, “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” College English 50, No. 5 Sept. 1988, pp. 492, 479.) I grew up poor and working class in Hammond, Indiana in the 1950’s. My dad came over from Poland around 1914. He was in his 50’s when I was born. He was class-conscious, though he didn’t have the words to describe himself as such. The Great Depression, low paid labor jobs, joblessness and the CCC Camps clarified any doubts he may have had about his class status. He understood what the capitalists were, and never doubted that we were working class, or that our interests were opposite from theirs. Nobody I knew talked about a “middle class”, unless they meant the local bar or grocery store owner, or maybe the boss or mill Superintendent. Raising three kids on low wage factory jobs, Pa used to cuss the Republicans and the capitalists in front of me when they came on TV. He went to union meetings regularly, but never felt qualified to run for office. He taught me that a union was the only hope a worker had to get any respect or dignity on the job. Between strikes and layoffs in the 1950’s, he and my mother scrimped and saved and voted straight Democratic and tried to keep our heads above water. My mother cleaned bed pans at the hospital to help out. Teachers told me I was smart. I read Hemingway, Plato and Aristotle as a kid, and dreamed of a “liberal education.” Of being a scholar and a writer. The world of ideas and literature fascinated me. But the real world and its ruling class had other plans for me. My world was a working-class world. I was on track for other things. 2 Olszanski
  3. 3. I started at a Blast Furnace labor job at Inland Steel’s Indiana Harbor Works, a union shop, right out of high school in 1963. In this, I was like millions of working class “baby boomers” in this country in the 1960’s. Our futures , if we were lucky, were the mills and factories. If not, Viet Nam or something worse. College was not an option, it was for rich kids or “middle class” kids -- unless I could take evening classes while working full time. My first pay check from Inland was bigger than any my father had earned in his life. I signed up for evening classes at Saint Joe College, then Purdue Calumet, but shift work and forced overtime soon made college impossible. In fact, overtime was mandatory. A History Professor at Purdue put the issue clearly, “You’re trying to work and take classes at the same time? You’re going to have to choose one or the other. You can’t do both.” By then married and with kids on the way, my decision was made for me. School would have to wait—for over 25 years, as it turned out. Interestingly enough, Inland Steel provided its own version of a swing-shifted educational program in the 1960’s and 1970’s, long before Dr. Ruth Needleman invented Swingshift College at Indiana University Northwest. Classes in its Electrical apprenticeship, the Purdue-Inland Training Program , were repeated morning and evening for shift workers. I took their training—the equivalent of an Electrical Engineering Technology (EET) Degree without the college credit. I got the job of Electrical Technician –a union job in the bargaining unit. I could be college-trained at Inland’s expense and with convenient class times, to do their electrical work; but Political Science, History, Sociology and Labor Studies would have to wait. 3 Olszanski
  4. 4. At the same time, around 1970 I became active in Local 1010 of the United Steelworkers Union. Raised in a pro-union family, I saw the union as my best chance for respect on the job, and as a potential force for change in the community and the country. Uninvolved and unsupportive of the civil rights, antiwar and environmental movements of the 1960’s, The USW didn’t seem very progressive to me then, but I thought it was up to us, the members, to make it so. Soon I was a griever steward (handling first step shop floor grievances), delegate to the Convention and Executive Board member. In 1971, Jim Balanoff recruited me to the Rank & File Caucus at Local 1010 —a center-left, Black White and Latino coalition that had been around since the CIO organizing days of the 1930’s. Since Balanoff was constantly red-baited and accused of being a Communist, I reasoned that he and the Rank & File must be doing something right. Working with progressives like Balanoff, Joe Gyurko, Cliff Mezo and others in the Rank & File Caucus, I helped organize the first Environmental Committee in a USWA basic steel Local, focusing on air and water pollution from our mill, and especially the Coke Plants. District 31 Director Ed Sadlowski appointed me to organize a District 31 Environmental Committee based on the 1010 committee. I chaired the committee under Ed and continued when Jim Balanoff was elected Director in 1978. We supported insurgent Ed Sadlowski for USW president, and in 1977 put 120,000 member District 31 in the front ranks of the Anti-Nuclear Power movement nation wide. Our most clear cut victory was permanently stopping construction of the Bailey Nuclear Plant a few hundred yards from the Bethlehem Steel Mill on Lake Michigan. 4 Olszanski
  5. 5. In the process I even got to visit Jimmy Carter’s White House on behalf of District 31, advocating a renewable solar and wind energy alternative. I’m proud to say we were ahead of our time on renewable energy, and it does my heart good to see hundreds of wind generators springing up all over the Indiana cornfields, and to see the Steelworkers Union joining with environmentalists in the Blue-Green Alliance fighting to secure jobs for U.S. workers building them. In 1979 we elected Bill Andrews the first Black president of 1010, and in 1985 I was elected vice president. When Bill left to go on the International Union staff in the middle of his term, I became president of Local 1010. Self taught, I was writing newspaper articles and papers on union democracy, energy and the environment and political economy. Through union activities, my consciousness had been raised, and reading Marx and other political economists in my spare time gave me a basic understanding of how the world works. Marx especially provided insight into the alienation I had felt since starting work at Inland Steel. I read him in the toilet at work, a great place for an epiphany. Still, I longed for a formal education, and a chance to research in depth what makes the world tick—especially politically and economically. But for me as for many adult workers shift work, and forced overtime still got in my way In the ‘90’s, when the union negotiated straight days by seniority, and our department agreed to overtime waivers, I finally went back to school, this time at Indiana University Northwest (IUN) where I already knew many of the faculty, including Dr. Ruth Needleman in Labor Studies. I started in Spring of 1993, 28 years after I had left Purdue. Coincidentally, so did Swingshift College. 5 Olszanski
  6. 6. Beginning with a one credit L290 Labor Studies class, “Steel at the Crossroads.” in 1993, Professor Needleman created Swingshift College. The program was directed by Cathy Iovanella (Hall) from 1996 to 2008 on a shoe- string budget. Aimed initially at Steelworkers, Swingshift helped us to take advantage of the education benefit negotiated by the USWA in their 1988 contracts with US Steel, Bethlehem, Inland , LTV and National/Midwest. The educational benefits for steelworkers are administered by a national office, the Institute for Career Development (ICD) established by the USWA and located in Merrillville, Indiana. Based in the Labor Studies department at IUN, Swingshift was a “customized college program” employing techniques aimed at motivating workers to take an active, pro-worker role in their unions and community. In August, 1994 a Gary Post Tribune editorial lauded Swingshift college as part of a new “vision for education” (Gary Post Tribune, August 24, 1994) Swingshift College at IUN, aimed at providing just what shift workers like myself had lacked for many years—the opportunity to take classes morning and evening, and even miss classes when necessary and keep up with video tapes. In addition to Labor studies, classes in Psychology, Sociology, English, History, even math and Geology were offered, so students could get the credits they needed for a degree. Drawing students from the big six area steel mills, Swingshift admissions were helped by the full tuition benefit for USWA members in Basic Steel. Faculty and Staff at Swingshift cut through the University’s red tape for workers, circumventing the admissions and registration and billing process, and even delivered students’ books to them in class. The program offered Associate and Bachelors degrees in Labor Studies, a Bachelors degree in General Studies, a Certificate in labor studies, and basic courses needed to complete other degree programs. 6 Olszanski
  7. 7. But it was much more. For Dr. Ruth Needleman, education for workers needs to be anything but neutral. Ruth made it crystal clear that Swingshift College, like the Labor Studies program she had headed for some years, aimed to educate and empower workers to enable us to build our own movement. Based on the Popular Education ideas of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, Bell Hooks and others which in turn grew from ideas of counter-hegemony first proposed by Antonio Gramsci, Swingshift classes aimed at developing class-conscious worker intellectuals. Organic intellectuals, to use Gramsci’s term. The Swingshift College vision understood that the Labor Movement would benefit greatly from the training of potential leaders in Swingshift College. And the society as a whole would be transformed by workers who knew how to think. Swingshift College stressed critical thinking, counter posing the perspective of Political Economy to the conventional economic and political theory promoted by the dominant class. Swingshift College placed a premium on the knowledge adult learners had already acquired and brought to class with them. In a Labor History class, the president of a steelworker Local Union explained how negotiations with Mittall Steel work, while members of other locals questioned the new USW contract that combined job descriptions on a huge scale. A 30 year steel mill veteran and union officer told the class he had been wrong in supporting Company/Union partnerships in the 1980’s and now believes they have hurt the union. A young Walmart employee told the class he was regularly expected to come to work on his day off on call from his boss, and older students from the unionized steel mills explained to him that this, plus his low wages and lack of benefits, were good reasons he needed a union. 7 Olszanski
  8. 8. Dr. Jim Lane’s History of the Viet Nam War class had Viet Nam combat veterans and veteran anti-war activists debating the U.S. actions in South-East Asia and learning to appreciate one-another’s perspectives on the war as well as their definitions of patriotism. The system worked. For many of us epiphanies ( what we called “light bulb moments”) happened regularly in many of our sessions. The idea that much of what we had been taught in school was aimed at making us docile “citizens” accepting of the status quo and our role as workers in a society controlled by capitalists was not totally new to us. But we learned to name things like “cultural hegemony”—the dominance of society’s very way of thinking by the ruling class and in their interests. “Education is never neutral” became our watchwords, as professors like Dr. Needleman and Dr. Thandabantu Iverson showed us how class, race and gender bias affects how everything in this country is taught, and learned including even physical science and math. Swing Shift college was indeed subversive and counter-hegemonic in the most positive ways. We taught and learned from each other, as well as the professors. We debunked myths, and substituted a working class analysis that recognizes the larger interests of society’s 99%--to use a recent term. 8 Olszanski
  9. 9. Physically located across the hall from IUN’s Political Science department long run by an extremely reactionary professor, Labor Studies offered a view of the world perfectly inverted from what was taught there. Swingshift professors—a small group of progressive thinkers who understood the kind of people they were dealing with--marveled at how well older workers, many of us out of school for 20 years and more, took to college level discourse. Most would agree they learned as much from the students as they taught us. While constrained by the demands of the University in terms of grades, curriculum, time-tables, etc., Swingshift College was the best attempt I know of to integrate popular education theory and practice with university undergraduate, and more recently, graduate level education. Beginning, in the tradition of Freire, Horton, and contemporary Canadian popular educators with the knowledge already possessed by adult students who may be union activists or officers, the method utilizes the “Spiral method” of Popular Education explained in detail in Education for Changing Unions by Burke, Geronimo, Martin, Thomas and Wall. Building on what workers already know, through experience and life learning, the method added information, promoted group analysis, and tested hypotheses against real world issues—always taking a position on the side of the working class. What does Popular Education mean in the classroom? Praxis is, after all the application of theory to practice. So how does the practice of popular education transform the classroom, the students and the teacher? Or, as Needleman put it, “That’s talkin’ the talk. What about walkin’ the talk?” How and where does the rubber meet the road? 9 Olszanski
  10. 10. Dr. Ruth Needleman, in bell hooks’ words, “employ[s] pedagogical strategies that create ruptures in the established order, that promote modes of learning which challenge bourgeois hegemony” (hooks, Teaching to Transgress,185). This professor takes more pride in her working-class credentials (she worked as a loader for UPS) than her Harvard degree. Ruth’s Labor Studies classroom is a good place to view the theory of popular education in action or “praxis”. Simultaneously a student and staff member, I had the opportunity to view her technique from a unique perspective. Our classroom was a space created to enable trade unionists, working class intellectuals and ordinary people of every race, background and gender to share, compare, explore, and analyze our experiences in the light of any and all theory we find useful. Here, in a “safe house” of brothers and sisters, guided, facilitated but not dominated by an expert in the use of analysis, we students began with our own experience, and with what we had already learned from that experience. Here Needleman in Myles Horton’s words, would “…build on people’s own experience; it is the basis for their [our] learning” (Horton, We Make the Road by Walking, 137). Here we were challenged to use new tools to understand the social causes of what many of us—isolated and alienated as we were—had assumed were our personal problems. 1 1 Professor of Sociology in the Swingshift Program Chuck Gallmeier uses a theory of C. Wright Mills—“The Sociological Imagination”--to define this new consciousness. 10 Olszanski
  11. 11. In Swingshift classes, students and professors decided collectively on the questions we wanted to discuss. Black white and brown, women and men, straight and gay, 18 to literally 80, we found common interests, and came to understand how those vital commonalities far outweigh our differences, confronted as we are by the hegemonic system of capitalism. We explored the intersections and compounding of oppression based on class, race, gender and sexuality. White men like me confronted and were challenged to understand our own male/white privilege. There was pain—real learning and transformation cannot avoid it. We discovered the basic conflict between the owning/ruling class and the working class. We found ourselves uncovering the truth of our own identities as first of all members of the largest, and potentially most politically powerful class in history. In this space we were encouraged to use all the tools we could find from the teaching of Jesus and the poet Shelley, as Myles Horton would have it, to the class analysis of Marx in our struggle to understand the forces which oppress, repress and exploit us. The simple fact that the theories of left-wing thinkers were included, given respect and weight, rather than dismissed as “subversive” or “idealist” or “dangerous” or “discredited” or “passé” enabled a kind of academic freedom often espoused but seldom found in practice on U.S. campuses. As Myles Horton has said, “When you want to build a democratic society, you have to act democratically in every way” (Horton, 227). The Swingshift College method of teaching is perhaps the most democratic one is likely to find in a university setting. 11 Olszanski
  12. 12. In the tradition of Horton, the jargon or “big words” of popular education, terms like “praxis” “hegemony” etc., were defined then (especially in Needleman’s class) set aside in favor of less formal, more familiar and accessible words. The emphasis is on understanding. As Horton puts it, “If they don’t understand the process, they may be able to go back and mouth it, but they can’t live it” (137). The aim was to balance rigor with clarity. One seldom left a Swingshift class without a clear explanation of the concepts in question. A student in one class offered her own colorful definition of cultural hegemony: “It’s like when everyone around you is respecting Donald Trump, saying he’s smart and his ideas are correct and we ought to follow them because he’s rich and successful.” And counter hegemony: “It’s like people in our class saying he’s a crook and he ought to be in jail.” Counter-hegemony, in our classroom, meant a space where we empowered ourselves through collective analysis to debunk the powerful myths projected by the educational, social, cultural, economic and political institutions of capital. It’s a space where we realized in the process how collective action, e.g., through a progressive and militant labor movement, women’s movement, peace movement, civil rights movement, poor people’s movement, can be our vehicle to do something about our situation: to fight back. Counter-hegemony for us was an organizing principle to understand the system but also to gather the strength in protected spaces to begin the process of changing it. 12 Olszanski
  13. 13. The intellectual courage of our facilitator (leader, in the best sense of the term) became contagious. Freed of the oppressive thought-controlled milieu of bourgeois culture, media and especially the educational system, we explored ideas which transformed us, and empowered us to transform society. As the acute need for social change became obvious and logical analysis dispelled the misinformation and disinformation which had clouded our thinking, the means to effect that change began to present themselves. Within this space the early adjournment of a class session in order to join a picket line was recognized as a practically seamless transition from theory to practice, from analysis to action. The process of learning engendered by popular education enabled, nurtured, developed us as “organic” intellectuals. Together we created new knowledge. A cohort of students became, in a sense, a “cadre” of class conscious leaders committed to social change, and clearly conscious of which side we are on. This was a program where, as Horton puts it, “people [leaders]… multiply themselves” (Horton, We make the Road by Walking 57). Bonds of newly discovered brotherhood and sisterhood that extend beyond the boundaries of the classroom were created and strengthened. As we picked apart the racist and sexist ideas which contaminate our larger society, we strengthened those bonds. Whether we celebrated a happy event, mourned a loss, won a strike, rode the bus to march on Washington, or just had a beer, a new circle of friends and allies (dare we say comrades) had been created, based on a collective understanding of the struggle we share. 13 Olszanski
  14. 14. The ideas of Freire, Horton, Hooks and popular educators from all times and places came to life in the Swingshift College classroom . I became convinced that these ideas, clearly subversive in the very best sense of the word, can enable the oppressed peoples of the world, and specifically of this country, to grow our own intellectuals and leaders, to organize, to resist, fight back, and finally, prevail. Like hooks, Needleman saw grades as something students should be allowed to “…control by their labor in the classroom” (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, 157). Students were urged to refine, re-work and re-submit work in order to get the grade we wanted. We were encouraged persist in our effort order to improve the quality of our writing and analysis. Grades in Needleman’s classes, as she herself told us, tend to be mostly A’s, B’s and incompletes. Swingshift students more than any other cohort I have seen wanted A’s, and wanted to know what was wrong if they didn’t get them. To a great degree, they earned A’s. Records show Swingshift students’ grades in regular university courses were generally higher than their traditional student counterparts. Workers put down by bosses and society for years as less than became scholars. At last we owned our education. 14 Olszanski
  15. 15. For me as a student, Swingshift College courses enabled me to research the history of my own union, to analyze the politics that had made it what it was when I was active, and to understand the larger context of labor and international history and politics in which the United Steelworkers and my Local in particular developed. My research reinforced much of what I had heard from old timers in the union about how the left played a critical role in building my union and the CIO itself, and the purges of the 1940’s and 1950’s nearly destroyed it. While a Swingshift College student and Staff member, I wrote papers on the history and politics of my own union, and co-authored a volume with Dr. Jim Lane on the Rank and File movement in Steel. After I retired from Inland in 1998 , I went to work Part-Time Temporary as assistant to Cathy Hall, then Coordinator of Swingshift College. Attending many of the classes as a student, I also videotaped, kept attendance, and helped students with writing assignments , registration, books, and all the minutiae of getting an education while working shiftwork. It was probably the best job I’ve ever had. It was difficult, especially for Cathy and Ruth. Finding professors willing to teach a three hour class twice in one day was challenging, though nearly every one who did said it changed their lives. Working students are very motivated. Most have already been through the “School of Hard Knocks.” Perhaps a little weak in English Comp, they make up for it with street smarts, a willingness to work, and a knowledge of history, economics and politics garnered from living. 15 Olszanski
  16. 16. When Swingshift graduate Charlie Brooks replaced Cathy Hall as Coordinator of Swingshift College in 2005, I worked with him trying to convince a business-oriented administration of the value of this unique program. Charlie and Ruth appealed to supporters in the university, organized labor and the legislature to help save Swingshift. But our opponents were relentless, our supporters weakened by a failing economy and a tough new management culture in the mills. Our students were forced onto twelve hour shifts, and the expense of paying instructors to repeat a class twice a day were deemed unsupportable in a climate of cost cutting. Labor Studies classes became mostly on-line. And this kind of pedagogy invites red-baiting. Each semester, word would filter back that a student or local union officer or someone had commented (often behind the backs of the faculty and staff) on the leftward slant of Swingshift College. This was, I think symptomatic of a larger, more insidious bias against the program, fueled by latent anti-communism. The inevitable friction of Swingshift College with Local, District and International leadership of the USWA as well as management of the steel companies, fueled by the rabid anti-communism infecting some of these officials reflected itself in conflict with much of the mission expressed by the program. It should come as no surprise that many older former cold warriors found the theories of Myles Horton, Paulo Freire, bell hooks and certainly those of Gramsci “socialistic” or “communistic”. 16 Olszanski
  17. 17. Pleasantly surprising is how far a frank discussion of the principles of worker education Swingshift College attempts to employ can dispel misinformation and paranoia among reasonably open-minded students. Unfortunately, top university administrators apparently did not share such open- mindedness. Perhaps more attracted by the idea of the Corporate University than one serving the needs of working adult learners, they chose to bow to the desires of business interests. In short, the program always had enemies, and in the end, one could say, they prevailed. Swingshift College was terminated in 2010. While I worked for Swingshift College, I had the opportunity to teach and co-teach a number of credit and non-credit Labor Studies classes, and I can’t overstate the high quality of working class learners and “organic intellectuals” I worked and studied with in Swingshift College. I graduated with a Bachelors degree in General Studies in 2001with a minor in Sociology and a Certificate in Labor Studies, and stayed with the program until it was ended in 2010. I was retained by Labor studies in 2011 on a part time temporary basis to work with outreach. I have graduate hours in Labor Studies and look forward to future research and scholarship, as well as labor activism. 17 Olszanski
  18. 18. Bibliography Burke, Bev, et al, Education For Changing Unions, Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002 Frère, Paulo and Horton, Myles, We make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change, Edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990. hooks, bell, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, NewYork: Routledge, 1994 18 Olszanski

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