A Research Stream: Types of support, potential value, research questions

Phone raceThis is a photo of a race going on among participants in a pre-apprenticeship class at Los Angeles Trade Tech, one of the  LA community colleges. Before you can get into an IBEW-sponsored electricians apprenticeship program there, you have to get a pole-climbing certification. Here are some guys (all guys; hmmmm….) racing each other to the top of the pole where they have to bolt together two cross pieces. I am posting this photo, and one of the apprenticeship instructor (below) because of the discussion of union apprenticeship programs which follows. The argument about women’s upper body strength would not apply to this challenge; women do well in the ironworkers’ apprenticeship program in Chicago because today’s young women often DO have good upper body strength. But you also have to be skinny, and not all these guys were skinny (and some of them were having a problem.) 

Several weeks have gone by since my last post, which followed the March 11 meeting of the US-Viet Nam Labor Education Group in Los Angeles at the UCLA LAbor Center. Because there were several major tasks in the pipeline for that group (the most immediate and important one being the visit of a delegation from the VGCL, which has been postponed until August of this year), we set up a Labor Education committee within which we could take up the various academic issues like mentoring Vietnamese researchers to get help them get published in English-language journals. I now understand that Joe and I will be working with two groups when we go back to Ho Chi Minh City in August (by the way, I got placed on the Fulbright Specialist roster for this project, which I hope will defray some of the costs). One group is faculty at TDT and the other is an independent researchers group based in HCMC and originally convened by Chang Hee Lee, the ILO Country Director, who has assembled a parallel group in Hanoi.

Of course this is pretty exciting for me. More reading and writing!!!!

One of the things we talked about within the Labor Education Committee (briefly, and this was the kind of thing that made it clear that we needed two groups, one to deal with the nuts and bolts of the delegations and the other to talk academics and research) was motivation: what motivates someone to do research and try to publish it? Then follow the questions, what support does someone need in order to do this work? and what social value might this work have?

Katie Quan suggested that when we go to VN and meet with these groups of researchers, I frame my first presentation to be not about one specific article that I wrote that got published in a “reputable” academic journal, but about what kind of support was necessary from my institution in order to get it written, and what kind of social value that research might possibly have had or still have. I thought this was good advice. I think both issues can be linked through the matter of the “research question.” Then, rather than trust myself to do this on my feet when standing in front of a group and watching the clock (and speaking through a translator for many of them), I decided to write it up what I would say and post it, and then let some key people know that it was posted.


April 11, 2017 (revised April 23)

This invitation to present my research to the Journal Club is an honor and a unique challenge. I feel as if I have been invited to defend my work, in much the way I once defended my dissertation proposal, with the difference that now I am a “retired” professor looking back on it. Therefore I have made some notes. I have chosen to organize these notes overall as a narrative. I pay attention to the basic issues of research questions and theoretical framework, but I also describe the financial and other types of support that made my research possible, collaboration, venues where I have published and presented, the social value that my research may or may not have had, as well as a note about my current research question. I hope to explain my own story in enough detail so that colleagues in Viet Nam, where conditions and goals are different, can see what is comparable and what is not.

Looking over what I have prepared, I admit that I am surprised by what I see. Given my early efforts as a novelist, poet and playwright, I would not have predicted that my largest “streams” of research would turn out to be related to the building trades or to higher education as an industry. Both of these streams are a product of collaboration, a concept I will expand upon later.

My conclusion will emphasize the importance of getting the right research question. A research question must motivate you personally and be of critical importance to the world you live in. It must link theory and practice. Practice, which takes place in “the world you live in” is specific to each of us; it is where you are in the global economy, where you are in your academic culture, and where you are in your local political and economic context. Your experience, including your education, has prepared you to formulate this question, and prepared you to contribute to your world by answering it.

In my case, my current research question has to do with what is needed to support the Labor Relations and Trade Unions program at Ton Duc Thang University in Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam. Students at TDT are enrolled in a program that prepares them for roles in an industrial relations system that is undergoing transformation. Dean Hoa at Ton Duc Thang has encouraged me to work specifically on the question, “What changes have taken place in workers’ education as the employment relationship in Viet Nam transitions under the new economy?” This will be my research question for the next months or perhaps years.

Background: My prior research questions and theoretical orientation

When I was in my thirties I had published two novels that were well-reviewed, if not big sellers. Thereby I was hired to teach writing at several colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area. One summer I was teaching only one class. A colleague commented to me, “I like the way you teach,” which made me ask myself, “How do I teach?” To answer that question, I decided to keep a journal of my class, challenging myself to explain both what the students did and what I did. The more I wrote, the more questions I had, and found myself going to libraries and bookstores to read about teaching writing. I did not know it, but I was looking for a theoretical framework. Finally, I showed my journal, which was by now hundreds of pages long and full of examples of student writing, to a friend, Kaethe Weingarten. She said, “This is an organizing description.” At last, I knew the name of what I was doing. She also gave me the names of some theoreticians that she thought would make sense to me: Gregory Bateson was one and Maturana and Varela, the Brazilians, were two more. Someone else pointed me to Paulo Freire. I started to study more systematically.

The work of these thinkers was consistent with the work of someone I had met fifteen years before, in college: Vygotsky, the Soviet psychologist. Vygotsky demonstrated, in ways convincing to me, that language is the indispensible constituent of social interaction and therefore of learning, both individual and collective; it is the means by which consciousness on the one hand, culture on the other, and encompassing both, history, is continuously created. I recognized in the efforts of my students to communicate in writing with each other and me what Vygotsky may have meant when he said “Word: impossible for one, necessary for two,” and “Language is consciousness in practice.” Bakhtin helped, too. This collective, cooperative approach to learning, that recognizes the essentially social, active character of first speech and consequently thinking, is to be contrasted with “alienated learning,” as McDermott and Lave put it (2006), in which all learners are in competition with all other learners and knowledge is treated as a commodity that can be bought and sold.

Another friend, also a teacher, advised me that I would enjoy graduate school (she meant, “You’re asking too many questions!”) so I applied and got into the Education School at UC Berkeley, first in the MA in Reading program and then, because I developed even more questions, into the PhD program. There I was introduced to the next generations of Vygotskian theory; the work of Leontiev (Activity theory); of Yrjo Engestrom, who founded the Center for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research at Helsinki University; Jean Lave, who set out the theory of communities of practice, and of Mike Cole at the University of California San Diego. Cole had studied with Luria in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and worked with Sylvia Scribner in Liberia. He moderated an online discussion group called XMCA (after its journal, Mind, Culture and Activity) that takes up issues related to learning and education from a sociocultural perspective. I still participate in that discussion.

Sociocultural theory, sometimes called CHAT (cultural-historical activity theory) became my own orientation, with an additional aspect: as a teacher, I had become active in the teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, both at the local and state levels. As an activist, I benefited from labor education: non-credit classes that prepared me to be a workplace representative and eventually run for office. (These are classes comparable to the ones taught by TDT lecturers for the VGCL.) It was unavoidable that I learn and adopt a perspective on work – not only the work of teachers, but all work – that recognized the fundamental tension between workers and employers. The Marxist roots of Vygotskian and sociocultural theory generally were consistent with this perspective because they acknowledge a dynamic (dialectical) relationship among the elements of a unit of analysis. Change, for better or worse, is driven by the energies of contradictions within this unit. Under capitalism, the primary contradictions are between workers and employers, mediated of course in language, and the outcomes of those contradictions are negotiated, constituted and stabilized in language, especially written language. Contracts are examples of this.

I want to note here that from the point of view of someone in the US, the conflicts of interest between workers and employers or owners of capital are inescapably obvious, because we inhabit a ruthlessly profit-driven economy and have at least 100 years of recorded experience with collective, bottom-up organized resistance in the form, for better or worse, of labor unions. We have never had a socialist economic system that attempted to resolve this conflict of interest at the level of the government. Thus we have a system of industrial relations that manages conflict, not resolves it. A resolution has an end; management is open-ended and ongoing. Therefore when someone like me looks at Viet Nam, where a person can be both a human resources manager and a union president, and sees the opening up of a socialist economy to market forces, I feel a certain urgency to point out what is coming and convey the lessons of our ongoing collective grassroots bottom-up resistance. “Lessons” implies learning, in the sense of preparing for experience. You can probably see that this leads to a study of how the institutions of an industrial relations regime attempt to balance the power relations engaged in this conflict. This is not to say that we have been successful here in the US. However, there are some things we have learned.

So I graduated from UC Berkeley with a PhD, a theoretical orientation that was rooted in Vygotsky, Activity Theory, sociocultural assumptions, and generally Marxist; a research approach that combined qualitative skills (surveys, interviews, direct observation, case studies, document review, ethnographic description and analysis) with my own facility for writing (remember that I started as a novelist), and a conscious pro-worker bias. For example: given a situation in which an employer was trying to change a work process, my interest would not lie in how the employer could effectively motivate and direct his workers to adopt the new process. My interest would like in how the change would affect the workers and how they might learn to organize to protect their jobs, their safety and their labor standards, and how they would fix whatever gains they made in arrangements that were enforceable. Both perspectives reveal driving contradictions, but the one I choose will look at the contradictions that are within the power of workers and their organizations to address.

Incidentally, the field of Industrial Relations, which focuses on the employment relationship, actually recognizes that the relationship engages multiple incommensurable perspectives; when you join the Labor and Employment Research Association (LERA), you are asked to indicate whether you identify as Human Resources or Union. You cannot be both.

Vygotsky and 1936

There is one more point that I must make about my theoretical orientation. Vygotsky’s work was in a discipline called paedology, the study of the development of children’s thought and character. Paedology was part of the department of philosophy at Moscow State University. A concern of philosophy was “idealism” versus materialism; mind and consciousness as something outside of matter versus mind and consciousness as something embodied in and made of matter. This could also be a question about the interaction of heredity and environment. In 1936, the Communist Party Central Committee eliminated Vygotsky’s discipline and its journal on the grounds that it was promoting idealism. From then on, academics in the social sciences and humanities had to work under political constraints (see the reference at the end of this post). Vygotsky himself was already deceased in 1934, before this ban, but because of it, his work did not come to the West until the early 1960s (under his own name, that is – not Pavlov). Since then his work has become well known, in fact mainstream, among educators in the US. It seems that in Viet Nam, based on a few conversations I have had, his work is also known, especially by academics who got their PhDs in Moscow, but it is known in the form that emerged after 1936. In comparison with US social science practices, Vietnamese social sciences apparently reflect this difference, the consequence of a fork in the road that took place over 80 years ago.

If I am wrong or misinformed about this, I would appreciate being corrected.

Now that I have explained my theoretical orientation to my research, I will turn to something practical: The institutional support that made it possible. My purpose in doing this is to emphasize that research needs material support and collaboration; a single unassisted person without resources cannot do much alone.

The support for my research at the University of California

I have had the good luck to have graduated from and worked at two large, well-funded Research I universities, the University of California and the University of Illinois. The support that I describe is, I believe, typical for institutions of that class.

As a graduate student at UC BerkeleyI was part of a team of students who worked on a project headed by W. Norton Grubb, a well known education economist, who had won a series of large grants from the National Center for Vocational Education. His research question was, “Regarding teaching, what goes on in community college classrooms?” “What goes on” is not the same as “What do teachers do?” Typical studies of teaching strategies focus on what the teacher does; we call it “talking heads”. But it is the students who are doing the learning — so what are they up to? Our project was to focus on the whole drama of the classroom, on the assumption that much of learning takes place though interaction among students and their shared use of written symbolic systems (math, images, models, signs, text structures, language) that are posted, distributed, manipulated or created in the classroom.

Community colleges in the US, incidentally, are low-cost working class open access colleges that provide pre-university, vocational/professional and lifelong learning. There are at least 1,000 of these all over the country. Because of my work at the state level of my union, the CFT/AFT, I knew a great deal about the funding and governance of community colleges, especially how legislation affected the experience of teachers in the classroom. This was one of my qualifications for working on Norton Grubb’s project.

Our team’s assignment was to go and sit in classrooms all over the US and write down ethnographically rich (full of detail) descriptions of the classroom, not just what the teacher was doing, but the whole drama. My focus was on the use of literacy – symbolic communication of all sorts, drawing on the Activity Theoretical concept of the “tool.” I did my observations in Iowa, Michigan, Illinois and California. As one of Dr. Grubb’s research assistants, I received a tuition waiver, health benefits, $900 a month and expenses when I had to rent a car or stay in a hotel. In other words, I was for all intents and purposes paid to write my dissertation. Our collective work became a well-known book, Honored But Invisible. http://hepg.org/her-home/issues/harvard-educational-review-volume-72-issue-1/herbooknote/honored-but-invisible_71 My contribution is found in Chapter 4, which is a condensation of my dissertation, for which I won the “Best Dissertation” prize from the School of Education that year (1997).

It is important to add that this generous grant-funded support was part of an agreement negotiated between the University and the graduate research assistants’ union, part of the United Auto Workers.

Next: No official research at UNITE, but a lot learned

I went from graduate school to working for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Workers (UNITE) as the Director of Education and Political Action for a small Joint Board (local mid-level body) in Philadelphia. I may have learned more at UNITE than I did in graduate school; it certainly was a life-changing experience. This was private, not public sector work; union representation was covered by the 1936 collective bargaining law (National Labor Relations Act or NLRA) that still serves as the model for such laws, public and private sector, in the US. Unions that can function under that law were the model for the proposal to be adopted by Viet Nam had the Trans Pacific Partnership been put into effect in the US. The essence of the law is that workers may self-organize into unions and acquire rights on the basis of belonging to their union — a collective — the purpose of which is “concerted activity for mutual aid and protection.” One form of this activity is bargaining. This is to be contrasted with the Vietnamese Labor Code which sets labor standards but does not permit self-organization. Garments and Textiles was an industry that was dying shop by shop every week, but it was a union with a noble and rich history and much to learn. Of course, there was no support for research. I did something you can always do, support or no support: I kept an intensely detailed journal.

It was at this job that I became convinced, through observation, conversations and attempts to support workers in workplace conflicts, that the view of the whole production process from the shop floor was entirely different from the HR office. Workers and employers actually see different things when they walk through a workplace. This is a difference that we will try to teach about at Ton Duc Thang. I also saw how what workers learned in the course of doing their work could be gathered, analyzed and shared; that this knowledge was both an unrecognized resource for the best practice in the workplace and the foundation for solidarity and “concerted activity for mutual aid and protection,” to use a phrase from our labor law. This conviction about the value of the knowledge that workers create but rarely articulate, and which is often invisible to management, became the driving force behind all my next fifteen years of research and publishing, including the book I wrote after my retirement in 2010. Of course, it is true for teachers, too – but for some reason it became most glaringly obvious when I was working with garment workers.

I moved from that job in Philadelphia to Chicago, to the University of Illinois, to be in their Labor Education Program in 1999. This was a tenure-track job that required research and publishing. Both financial and material support was available for research.

 What basic institutional support is provided for faculty research at U of I?

First, I will simply list the kinds of support provided for all faculty at that time, regardless of their status or research projects:

  1. Good computer, a desktop and a laptop; unlimited access to printing. A computer technologist on call full-time to solve technical problems. A private office to work in and meet students.
  2. Full library access, downloading journal articles, etc.
  3. A paid research assistant. I interviewed graduate students who sought these positions because it helped them pay their way through their graduate programs, just as a similar position helped me at UC Berkeley. I was looking for someone who could do library research, literature reviews, and knew something about computer graphics and survey software. Preparing diagrams or powerpoints would be the work of one’s assistant, as would grading papers and hosting small group discussions. Over the years I had three or four research assistants. Anything a professor could think of could be assigned to your research assistant – even doing a lot of the research itself. Labor educators tended to choose research assistants from among the members of the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the grad students’ union, because they were already fairly well educated with regards to the labor movement. I also did some classes with that union as they were preparing for a sit-in at the administration building, basing my presentation on parallel sit-ins at Harvard and York University in Toronto.
  4. Travel funding. Assistant Professors were entitled to reimbursement for travel, housing and conference fees for two domestic (US) conferences per year and one international conference per year. On this plan I went to conferences all over the US and to the UK and the Netherlands. I received funding for a conference for Activity Theory in Finland and chose not to go, believing that teaching my class was more important. I still regret this choice! The purpose of supporting conference presentations is that conferences are a half-way step toward getting one’s research published. A fifteen-minute panel presentation will generate some comments that will guide the author toward good revisions and possible collaborators. One also makes contacts at a conference that may produce invitations to write chapters, serve on editorial boards, etc.
  5. Flexible time and release time. I was in the Labor Education program, teaching classes for workers. We also taught classes for regular undergraduates in our online program and through a partnership with the National Labor College. We worked many hours mainly because there was a lot of work to do. However, since from the point of view of the University, publishing was more valuable than teaching (or service, our third duty), it was possible to reduce a teaching load in order to complete research. Faculty who were not teaching extension classes might get one or two courses release time, out of a total load of 4 to 6 per year. In addition, our time was essentially our own; you could work in your office or at home, or while traveling, and time management was left up to the individual.
  6. Pay. I should mention pay: I started at U of Illinois at $58,000 per year plus full benefits and ended up at $85,000 per year plus benefits. This seems to have been fairly normal for labor educators at state universities. There was definitely discrimination against women on matters of wages, to say nothing of promotion. In fact, I eventually found out that all three of my women mentors, at Berkeley and Illinois, had had to sue their universities to get their promotions! For my generation of women, that was practically considered normal.

So those are the basic conditions of full-time faculty work at the U of Illinois, without any additional support from outside grants dedicated to research or getting published.

Projects that led to published research

Over time, as one approaches tenure review, a faculty member is supposed to produce a “stream” of research, meaning a sequence of publications, often generated from one or two major explorations, that take up different aspects of the main research question.

Talking about my “stream of research” means going back to my fundamental research question which was (and still is) how workers learn to organize to protect themselves and each other – not what they do, which is what many people study, but how they learn to do it. Most learning theory research is about school learning. Some is about after-school, or informal learning. But both of these assume that the site of learning is friendly to the kind of learning that is needed. But work is not school; people are paid to work at work, not learn. For workers, the kind of learning that is needed is not the same as what the employer wants them to learn, that serves the production imperative of the workplace. Employers want fast, high-quality production; workers want safe, fair workplaces.The workers’ purpose is to make a living while the employer’s purpose is to maximize productivity. These two interests sometimes overlap but are fundamentally in tension or conflict.  Therefore what workers learn is not just different from what the employer wants them to be thinking about; it is opposed to it. Workers learn in the middle of this dynamic because they have to survive. What they learn has to do with power.

Labor education structures this learning and is an activist field. We teach collective decision making, leadership, communication and the substance of law, labor regulations and governing structures. We support our students as they figure out how to practice the skills of their work in a way that does not expose them to exploitation. We teach labor history as a way to build a critical consciousness of themselves as individual working people and as part of the working class. This is a particular consciousness that can either be nurtured or suppressed. Labor educators get involved in the whole range of situations where this learning happens: classrooms, women’s programs, special-issue trainings, apprenticeship programs, union meetings, campaigns, workforce development schemes, the political legislation that supposedly fosters workforce development, and so on. Any situation that encourages that kind of learning is of interest.

When I study a workplace, I ask much the same question that I asked during my dissertation research: “What is going on here?” (As contrasted to: “What is the teacher doing?”) I rely on the same theories, but I never forget that the context of a workplace is not the same as the context of a school. I try to understand the whole context, including the history and customs of the situation I am looking at and the forces that are aligned to constrain it. I look at how workers figure out how to make their work give them a life.

Not surprisingly, most workers in the US do not get access to labor education, and in the current political environment, labor education programs are open to attacks from right-wing forces.

I will now list a series of such projects that I have been involved in, and tell what became of them, what kind of funding they got (if any), whether they resulted in a publication and whether they could be said to have demonstrable public value. When I mention funding, I don’t mean money that I could add to my salary. Sometimes the money came as a deposit into a university account with my name on it, which I could then assign to reimburse specific expenses. Sometimes it was money paid directly to the University of Illinois by an outside entity (such as the Abbot Power Plant project) to support a team that included me. I will try to make clear how any money that flowed from or led to research could be used.

Research question #1: Training for work. What goes on in apprenticeships? The Building Bridges Project

Because of my graduate work observing community college classrooms, of which many were workforce training classrooms (everything from robotics to dairy farm management, but of course electrical and auto repair), I knew something about union-based apprenticeship programs. At a demonstration, my partner Joe Berry met an African-American clergyman named Anthony Haynes who ran a pre-apprenticeship program in Chicago called the Building Bridges Program (BBP). Reverend Haynes invited me to work with them. I was delighted. The purpose of this program, run through a community based organization, was to set up classes for “the hard-to-employ demographic” which usually meant members of minority groups, often men in their 50s, people who had been in prison, and older women. These classes would prepare our students to take apprenticeship examinations and get into the unionized building trades. This program also responded to the fact that many of the building trades, which pay very good middle class wages and offer good benefits, were historically exclusionary on the basis of race and gender. One of the driving internal contradictions of the situation was that as the current generation of tradesmen approached retirement, a new generation was needed; this brought about a moment when dropping discriminatory apprenticeship acceptance practice would benefit both parties. Thus the BBP. There was considerable political clout prepared to support programs like these. Electricians (IBEW Local 134), carpenters (UBC LOcal 1) and bricklayer unions (BAC Local 21) were especially supportive of our project. My role in the team was ethnographer, academic or writer, surrounded by non-academics; a very good role to be in.

After it had been in existence for several years, the BBP won a $500,000 grant from the State of Illinois. I wrote an article comparing a well-funded program that we ran, thanks to this grant, to a poorly funded program we had run earlier, showing how important it was to provide supports for our students – a full “wrap around” program. There were two separate articles in Labor Studies Journal about this project, one of the re-printed in the Journal of Community Practice, both co-authored by Rev. Haynes. Later, I was awarded a $3,000 grant from the Center for Democracy in a Multi-Racial Society to do structured interviews with gradates of the program. I found an experienced woman journalist, Karen Ford, who knew the Chicago African-American community, to do the interviews. Even later, I was able to access $10,000 to put on a conference in California at the University of California Berkeley to which spokespersons from organized construction trades unions and community-based organizations (often threatening a culture clash) were invited. My co-organizer was the UCB labor educator Steven Pitts, who has become known for his work in Black Workers Centers: http://laborcenter.berkeley.edu/blackworkersmatter-report/

Getting a reputation as a woman who was concerned with diversity issues in the trades enabled me to make conference presentations including one to the annual women’s conference of the electrical workers’ union, IBEW. This topic, in other words – combining difficult historical contradictions around racism, job training, access to high-paying stable jobs and union representation – spun out into a “research stream” that included multiple journal articles, conference presentations, teaching assignments and finally a book chapter on on-the-job training in apprenticeship programs. This last,  a book chapter co-authored with an apprenticeship instructor named Mark Berchman from IBEW Local 134, is the one that gets the highest number of views on academia.edu. Beyond the writing, of course, this research actually supported the Building Bridges Project by publicizing and legitimizing it. Even today there are people working who would not have had jobs without that program. What should be obvious here, however, is the number of other people who contributed to that stream; teachers, students, donors, members of the Advisory Board, and Reverend Haynes himself, of course, who was listed as co-author on publications. Emanuel Blackwell, a Heat/Frost Insulators Local 17 retiree, was the core teacher for most of our classes and was able to perform what looked like magic with getting our students past the formidable math tests associated with apprenticeship program applications.

Below is a picture of the apprenticeship instructor at the site of the pole-climbing class in Los Angeles. His name is Anthony Sylvers; his card lists him as Power Lineworker Instructor. I post this picture because he conveyed an attitude that I have found universal among apprenticeship instructors: intensely positive, hands-on, hopeful, very clear about the direct line through training from no-job to good-job, and very clear about the fact that it’s the union that makes the job good. I never talk to an apprenticeship instructor without at least briefly wishing I could start all over again.

App instructor SYlvan

Research question #2: What will be the impact of job training-related legislation?

Flowing from my interest in the conditions of work from the point of view of working people, I paid attention to new legislation about work and preparation for work, asking, “What do people learn in job training programs?” “Job training” usually means short-term skill classes, not apprenticeship programs. In the 1990s, as the US adopted increasingly neoliberal economic strategies, there was an effort to cut back the social welfare safety net that supported millions of people. This was spoken of as “eliminating welfare as we know it,” a phrase associated with the Clinton presidency. Among our students at the University of Illinois were the leaders of a local union of welfare caseworkers, Diane Stokes and Steve Edwards of AFSCME 2858, who were watching the carnage (to use a term from President Trump’s inauguration speech) as laid off workers, families, the disabled – turned to our social welfare system and found it disappearing.

The legislation that dealt with these changes came in two parts: one was TANF, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which cut welfare, and the other was WIA, the Workforce Investment Act, that subsidized training. The idea was that people who had lost welfare benefits could get trained and get good jobs. This was a hoax. There was never going to be enough money to re-train all the dislocated workers, nor more than a few good-paying jobs for them to take. The money spent on job training should have been spent on staffing and supporting public schools, not setting up a whole fly-by-night system of private short-term training projects. WIA was mainly a giveaway to employers who got subsidized low-wage workers.

Working with Diane and Steve, we wrote and published an article  in Labor Studies Journal based on research about the impact of TANF both on welfare recipients and on the workers in the welfare offices. I also attended state level and Chicago WIA meetings, learned and wrote and published about job training programs that worked and ones that didn’t. A critique of the WIA legislation was published in WorkingUSA; others were published in non-academic venues more likely to be read by the public. I brought in $5,000 for an analysis of a subsidiary piece of legislation called Ticket to Work, which proposed to double the value of welfare payments to the disabled by paying the actual benefits to a family member who would then care for the dependent as a job. I criticized this idea severely, looking at it from the point of view of the employee whose low-wage employment relationship would be hopelessly complicated and vulnerable to abuse. The agency that paid the $5,000 for the analysis did not like my analysis and asked for, but did not get, its money back.

Overall, I was nearly a lone voice in criticizing this legislation, both the TANF and the WIA bills. For me, here was a clear warning signal: for all the millions of dollars that WIA authorized for training for “good jobs,” there was no training in labor rights such as the right to organize, which is where the power to make a job good comes from. The local, state and regional committees that distributed the funds were dominated by employers. The labor representatives were mostly from the building trades, whose demanding apprenticeship programs would not be accessible to job-seekers coming off welfare with low-level skills (thus the connection to the Building Bridges Project). Although there was a constituency that pushed for high-skill, unionized job training through WIA, it faded as overall funding dwindled in the 2000s.

Research Question #3: What is unique and important about Womens’ Labor Education: a teaching lab opportunity

I was the only woman in the program at University of Illinois up until about 2008, which handed me the privilege of directing an annual women’s labor education conference that was richly funded to the tune of $35,000 – to $70,000 one year. This was the Polk Conference, named in honor of a union staffer, Regina Polk, who was killed on the job in the 1980s. I had a free hand to design, staff and conduct these conferences, which meant that I could experiment with curriculum. We had between 35 and 70 women at them, for 3 to sometimes 4 days, depending on our funding. We also held some one-day classes between conferences. I used the conferences for research on teaching techniques rather than research for publication, although a forthcoming book from a Canadian publisher will have a chapter by me about Polk. Here was a situation in which I could ask my research question and answer it by experimenting as if in a lab rather than observing learning in the wild. In this sense, it was research, but it was not research for publication, although I summarize our curriculum in that forthcoming chapter.

Looking back on it, I think that the research that women from our professional organization, UALE (United Association for Labor Education) have done on women’s labor education has not been properly written up and promoted. My colleague, Emily LaBarbera Twarog at University of Illinois, has a chapter on this in a book called Civic Labors: Scholars, Teachers, Activists, and Working-Class History, that I completely agree with.

Research question #4: How do workers use what they know about their own work in dealing with management: Health and Safety at a Power Plant

This was a case study. An old, coal-fired power plant needed maintenance and repair; a new manager came and saw that the workers were not wearing safety protections such as hard hats and gloves. The question the workers were forcing management to answer was, “Are we working dangerously – or is this really a dangerous place to work?” Their refusal to take ordinary precautions despite being punished made management take an action which consisted of asking a group of labor and management faculty to do a study of what was going on. A team of us from the U of Illinois interviewed everyone in the plant; many changes were made. This experience was a presentation at IFWEA in San Diego and then became a chapter in my book, What Did You Learn at Work Today? I can’t hold back a smile about the research process: on the one hand, using graduate students, we did between 40 and 50 interviews, each one an hour long, transcribed and analyzed for themes and key words at considerable cost. On the other hand, as soon as I had been brought onto the research team and heard the plan of what we were going to do, I went over to the plant and asked to speak to the union steward, who sat with me and simply told me the information that became the summary of the whole project, $10,000 later.He had been on the local safety committee for years and of course, all the problems and all the strategies the workers had taken to try to improve maintenance and safety, were all ready to hand.

In practice, if there was a situation like this where some action was required soon, the obvious thing to do would be to ask the union steward what was going on. No expensive “research” would be necessary. But this assumes that the union steward is the channel through which accurate information about the conditions of work are aggregated and that he or she has been democratically authorized to speak on behalf of the workers. That is a different challenge.

Research question #5: How are labor education programs in the US doing? The United Association for Labor Education study of labor ed programs

After I retired, I was given $10,000 to do a study of the status of labor education programs in the US. This involved interviewing the over 40 labor ed programs that still exist, searching out people who could talk about the ones that no longer exist, making a presentation to the Executive board of UALE and then presenting a final paper. That paper is posted on the UALE website. It is probably only read by labor educators, and even among those, only the ones that are concerned about the degree to which the attacks of right-wing leaders and legislators have destroyed programs. I was able to do this project because of my connections with people at different labor ed programs made during the four years when I organized the annual UALE conferences.

Research question #6. How is higher education changing, and what are faculty and faculty organizations doing about it?

My overall research question, which is about how workers learn about their own workplaces and how to empower themselves through collective activity, leads directly to another topic: higher education as a workplace. I share this research question with my husband and work partner, Joe Berry, who has been a contingent faculty organizer, researcher and leader in the movement for many years. Teachers are workers too; our industry, higher education, has been subjected to neoliberal market strategies and our workforce has been casualized just like other workforces. This topic, however, is not a natural to attract support from institutions of higher education which are, after all, the management whose strategies we criticize. The support that we get for this research comes from unions and progressive publications. For example, when Joe and I wrote a study of the way unemployment compensation for precarious faculty is provided, with advice to laid-off faculty seeking compensation, our small book was published by a the Chicago Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, not by the University of Illinois or even our Labor Education Program. A study sponsored by the National Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor and the United Association for Labor Education in which I asked, “What are the working conditions of online instructors?” was published in the journal of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) journal – not an academic journal, but a journal for a union of academics. The social value of research, in  other words, is not identical to its academic value or rather its value within academia.

Articles that Joe and I have written about contingent faculty and higher education have appeared in WorkingUSA, Radical Teacher, Dollars and Sense and various other venues including union newspapers, the local Oakland, California weekly Oakland Post, neighborhood newsletters and union blogs and websites. A debatable generalization is that the less prestigious the place you publish, the more likely that the people who matter to your issue will read it. On the basis of the work we have done on this topic (and other work he has done, such as his 2005 book Reclaiming the Ivory Tower), Joe is invited to be a keynote speaker at conferences all over the US, year after year. In these joint projects on this topic, Joe and I discuss the issues, I do the re-writing, and he does the conference presentations.

Research question #7: The learning process itself, looking at working adults

Ever since my early graduate student days I have been primarily interested in how people teach and learn, especially in how we teach and learn the essentially political lessons about power that are inherent in the employment relationship. As a labor educator, the design of each class is a response to what is known about those particular students, who they are, what their workplaces are like, what their support systems are like, etc etc. Like the Polk conferences, my labor ed classes were more like a collective lab than like a research project, mainly because students would come to class with problems (suspensions, overtime, hazards, abusive managers, etc etc) that needed immediate attention. They would need to leave at the end of class with at least an understanding and analysis of the situation, if not a plan to do something about it. Teaching would come from other students, not just me. Teaching in this context might be compared to working in an emergency room: the victims keep coming, one after another, and will keep coming until you can multiply the ones who have learned enough to take over the teaching. Publishing, based on what a labor educator learns from this experience, doesn’t make for a typical academic journal article although I did publish one in Mind, Culture and Activity and another one in the Innovations section of Labor Studies Journal. Both of these were attempts to extend Activity Theory to workplace learning. Other than that, the lessons learned from this kind of teaching wound up in articles co-written by Joe and myself in a series of pamphlets published by the Workers Institute at Cornell called Steward Updates. These articles are very practical and do not make reference to my theoretical framework. The theory part, along with case studies, wound up in my post-retirement book, What Did You Learn at Work Today?

The research I am doing now, slightly different from what I have done before but still related to the “How do workers learn?” question, is “What constitutes a credible strike threat?”  This research is being headed up by Robert Ovetz at San Jose State and came from a conversation we had when we noted that in many standard labor texts, the number of union members and number of strikes is used as a proxy for the strength of the labor movement. In fact, we wondered, isn’t it a better sign of a strong union if the union can signal a strike threat and force the employer to move in bargaining without having to strike? So we decided to find out what happened if we studied strike threats, not strikes. Robert was able to get $2,000 from San Jose State and hired Gabriela Crowley as a research assistant, trying to get a substantial number of contacts at unions where there has been a strike threat but no strike. My hunch, of course: it takes a lot of labor education to raise member consciousness to a level where you really have a credible strike threat.

Finally, the importance of getting the right research question and finding collaborators

I have tried to link this whole history to what I’m calling “my research question” for a reason. For those of you teaching at Ton Duc Thang, or participating in the Ho Chi Minh City Journal Club, Getting clear about what your research question is probably the most important thing you can do. If you do not know your research question, you are like the person in the Zen saying: “Once off the path, all directions lead nowhere.”

There are institutional and national imperatives that motivate research and publishing for Vietnamese academics.  These are important, too. Your research question must not only tap into something that energizes you personally, some cognitive dissonance or contradiction that you feel driven to resolve or push forward. It must have some social value, too. It must be something that can benefit other people. But in order to do this, you need to know what those other people need. Perhaps your potential collaborators are among those “other people.” This is where thinking about your audience of peers and other academics comes into play. Writing up your research for submission to a journal is one thing, but then, after that, comes promulgating what you have learned through your research in other venues – classes that you teach, conferences that you go to, co-authors that you find, publications that are not academic,

A final word: My current research question about labor education in Viet Nam should provide the basis for creating a scaffolding for the design of curriculum for students at Ton Duc Thang. At this point, I don’t know if it will or if I am the person to do it. The whole point of doing research, after all, is to find out something that you don’t know in advance.  One of the things you might find out, when you make that step from theory to practice, is, “I was wrong.” It’s better to find this out early rather than late, by the way.

I have told my story, which in my eyes is the story of someone who has been lucky to have been well-supported in my research and unconstrained in terms of my own freedom to pick my research questions. Now I would like to find out what my story looks like from the point of view of Vietnamese researchers. Does the “social value” that I identify as the practice part of theory/practice seem worth the cost of the research? How much of the support that I describe was really necessary? What kinds of privileges could I have done without, if budgets had been tighter? And as far as political sensitivity goes, how much of what I was doing would be more difficult under our current President #45?

But for now, any help that people in this research group can provide would be welcomed.




Some references for items mentioned above:

Blunden, A. 2014. Collaborative Projects. Brill: Netherlands http://www.brill.com/products/book/collaborative-projects

McDermott, R. and Lave, Jean. 2006. Estranged Labor Learning. Critical perspectives on Activity: Explorations across Work, Education and Everyday Life. Cambridge University Press. Pg 89-122.

ON Vygotsky post-1936 in the USSR: Hiebsch, Hans, Introduction http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Mail/xmcamail.2011_12.dir/msg00047.html

And http://www.archive.org/stream/sovietpsychology00unse/sovietpsychology00unse_djvu.txt

Soviet Psychologies: A Symposium UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA LIBRARIES COLLEGE LIBRARY  Digitized by tine Internet Archive in 2010 with funding from  Lyrasis IVIembers and Sloan Foundation http://www.archive.org/details/sovietpsychologyOOunse

Vygotsky, L.S. 1934. Thinking and Speech. PDF available at:https://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/works/words/Thinking-and-Speech.pdf

Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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