Journey of a steelworker uale conference presentation draft 7
Blast Furnace to University
By Mike Olszanski
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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
Professor of Sociology in the Swingshift Program Chuck Gallmeier uses a theory of C. Wright Mills—“The
Sociological Imagination”--to define this new consciousness.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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
In short, the program always had enemies, and in the end, one could say,
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.
Burke, Bev, et al, Education For Changing Unions, Toronto: Between the Lines,
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