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Popular Education for Union Democracy
The Union Democracy Worker Education Project teaches the principles and practices of union democracy and self-organization. This requires an educational method that matches our goals and principles. The methods and techniques of popular education promote and support participation and critical thinking, and help workers develop the collective capacity to strategize, act and assess their work. Because popular education is a catchall term that is often used in the context of worker education, it is important for us to explain what it means in this context.
Popular education is not neutral.
Most union education programs use a traditional, top-down model in which learning is seen as a process of transferring knowledge from experts (officers, staff, and professional educators) to those who lack it (members). Even where participatory techniques are used (e.g. brainstorming, role-plays, and icebreakers), the basic power relations in the union are not open to question or debate. The student is assumed to share the goals of the program (which is to say the goals of the unions leadership) as reflected in the curriculum. Inconvenient questions are ignored or ruled out of order. If students do well, they may rise in the union hierarchy, if they resist or challenge the process, they risk being labeled troublemakers or dissidents.
Educators, too, are expected to honor the goals set by the leadership. Those who try to create a learning process in which workers can question everything, including their employer or the union leadership (or even the goals of the education program itself) often find themselves without a job. In short, for many unions, education is a tool to reinforce the ideas and practices of the leadership or a service that teaches workers how to adapt to changes in technology or staffing (downsizing, cross-skilling, speed-up, etc.), modifying skills and attitudes to meet the needs of the employer.
Our model is different. On the one hand, we are certainly not neutral. AUD has a definite goal: to promote union democracy and self-organization for a stronger labor movement. These principles are central to a progressive agenda for the labor movement. On the other hand, we do not promote a particular program or set of demands for change in unions. We want workers to gain the knowledge, confidence and organizational skills to set their own course. We encourage workers to explore any issue concerning their jobs or unions, and help them make the transition from discussion and analysis to strategic planning and action.
Popular education is critical.
The goal is to develop workers ability to think critically and question assumptions, even when those assumptions appear to be to their benefit, rather to accept what anyone says on faith. In practice, this means that groups and individuals learn to operate in a way that supports critical thinking, rather than simple adherence to a given program. This is especially important for groups that are working to build solidarity among workers to confront problems of discrimination or bias within their union or organization, where what is most needed is an approach to building trust without hiding or minimizing differences or tensions.
Popular education begins with the problems and experiences of the workers.
In this model, a workers problems on the job and in the union, and the knowledge, skills, and information she brings to the process are the starting point. Working collaboratively, educators and learners a) share experiences and identify common problems, b) analyze the problems and discuss causes, c) add new information, d) plan strategy, and, e) take action. The process begins again when the participants evaluate the results of their actions and the new situation. The connection between education and action in the world (not just the meeting room or classroom) is crucial and separates popular education from other forms of education that are used by unions and organizations.
Popular education is open-ended and horizontal.
The learning process may lead in a direction that was not anticipated by the educator. Students in a workshop on organizing a rank and file caucus may conclude that a caucus is not needed at that time. This does not mean that the educator operates without a plan or without objectives, but that he or she is ready for the process to develop in a different way. What matters is that the process be critical, democratic, and oriented to making changes that are relevant to the participants. The proof of a democratic process is that it can lead to actions or objectives that the organizer or educator did not plan. In many unions, popular education techniques are used to give participants the feeling of a democratic process when, in reality, the objectives are pre-set and the actions are decided from above. We encourage workers not only to explore within our project, but to spread the process beyond its limits, organizing their own groups and networks to spread the skills and methods of democratic organization.
Popular education is context-specific.
When we first start working with a group, we initiate a collaborative process of setting goals, planning the activity, leading discussions, and, later, evaluating its success. The workshops themselves become models of participatory and democratic techniques that can be used in organizing. Once a group is established, we try to sustain a collaborative relationship with them to conduct further education sessions. We also draw on activists to participate in and plan sessions of the democracy schools and other workshops.
Popular education evolves and adapts.
There is no authoritative or pure form of popular education. We are constantly tinkering, questioning, reinventing. Please contact us if you have ideas, experiences, questions you would like to share. We also welcome your response to this short piece on popular education and union democracy.
Popular education workshops.
We organize workshops on popular education and union democracy, to help broaden the base of popular educators familiar with workplace and union democracy themes. We can also organize these workshops for union activists who want to think about how to make their own educational programs more democratic and effective. Please contact us.
Popular Education for Union Democracy, a developing handbook for labor popular educators, by Matt Noyes. This new collaborative work in progress, published online, shares many of the participatory techniques used in AUD's worker education project and offers reflections on the limits and possibilities of popular education in the U.S. labor movement.
Educating for a Change, Doris Marshal Institute; This guide to popular education as practiced by the Doris Marshal Institute, in Toronto, Canada, gives a great introduction to the theme and also includes many valuable educational techniques and tips. Also valuable for its focus on race and gender issues.
Language and Culture in Conflict; While not explicitly a guide to popular education with working people on union-related themes, this book remains one of the best models of the application of popular education methods to a particular context: teaching English to immigrants in the US. The presentation of the problem-posing method, and the many examples given, are useful, and the focus on the lives and concerns of immigrants is important for people interested in worker organizing today.
Tecnicas Participativas Para La Educacion Popular, Alforja; The best introduction to the method, techniques and politics of popular education. In Spanish, with many graphics. www.alforja.or.cr/
Popular Education for Movement Building, Project South; Another application of popular education to movement organizing building, this time with a focus on making history part of our organizing work. Presents three different timelines and the process by which they were built. http://www.projectsouth.org/
The Power in Our Hands, William Bigelow and Norman Diamond, Monthly Review Press; still the best example of participatory techniques applied to the teaching of Labor History, Power in Our Hands provides a great series of activities and shows how such activities can be built out of different episodes in US labor history and taught in a way that engages people without sacrificing historical value. http://www.monthlyreview.org/mrpress.htm
Who Built America? Volumes One and Two; These volumes from the American Social History Project are still the best general source on the social history of working people in the US. ASHP also has wonderful teaching materials, videos, and a CD to accompany the books. http://www.ashp.cuny.edu/
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