Brookwood Labor College: “We teach the truth and train workers to work in their own movements.”
One of the first cooperative education experiments in the United States was Brookwood Labor College, a residential school for working class activists. Brookwood was popular with potential students around the country, but it had to withstand the constant political pressure from the major trade union federation of the day. From the start, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) feared and resented Brookwood and its advocates, applying its considerable influence to finally end the school’s fifteen-year run. located in New York, this radical experiment was co-founded and funded by a prominent Hartford couple.
Founded in 1921, the Brookwood program was based on four tenets, according to one of its founders, John Fitzgerald: “First, that a new social order is needed and is coming, in fact, that is already on the way. Second, that education will not only hasten its coming, it will reduce to a minimum and perhaps do away entirely with a resort to violent methods. Third, that the workers will lead this new order. Fourth, that there is an immediate need for a workers’ college with a broad curriculum, located in healthy country surroundings so the students can completely apply themselves to the task at hand.”
Josephine Bennett of Hartford put the school’s purpose more succinctly: “We teach the truth, and we train workers to work in their own movements.” She and her husband M. Toscan Bennett donated 53 acres in Katonah, New York for Brookwood and in 1921 became its principal executive officers. The couple moved from their comfortable Connecticut home to live at the school. Their two daughters graduated with the first class of 25 students in 1923.
Bennett was an intersectional organizer before the word was invented. She spent the past decade in Connecticut fighting for women’s suffrage, traveling from town to town to speak at factories, grange meetings, and living rooms. She was a constant advocate for the working class, aiding striking garment workers and organizing Black female tobacco laborers. She railed against the millionaires who profited from the First World War, and challenged male politicians including Woodrow Wilson when he failed to fulfill his suffrage promises. Bennett was international in her outlook, linking both the Irish and Indian nations in their struggle for independence from the British empire.
Teachers and students build a workers’ college
Students arrived at Brookwood from all over the country and eventually from around the world. They mostly came from industrial backgrounds, and some were veterans of difficult labor struggles. Often they arrived at Brookwood without a high school diploma or any formal education. All of them were ready to take on the learning and physical work that created the workers’ college from scratch.
Brookwood students labored as much as 50 hours a week, building and remodeling their classrooms. Classes met six mornings a week and on weekday afternoons. Two hours a day were set aside for various jobs, shared by men and women, students and teachers. This was where worker-students could sharpen their intellectual and organizing skills, preparing to join the fight for a better world.
The school earned revenue from tuition; labor councils donated scholarships, churches and wealthy individuals offered grants. Guest speakers throughout the labor movement and other progressive perspectives flocked to the college without regard to lecturing fees. They included birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, Walter and Victor Reuther (leaders of the UAW auto workers union), novelist Sinclair Lewis, union and civil rights leader A. Phillip Randolph, and garment workers’ activist Rose Pesotta.
To promote their project and broaden their appeal, the school branched out from its rural campus. Hartford, for example, was nearly an extension program for the Brookwood brand. The school established a travelling drama group that presented labor-oriented plays around the eastern United States, reaching thousands of sympathetic attendees.This was an effective teaching tool, since audience members were also encouraged to participate and share their own work situations.
Students and faculty from Brookwood organized chautauquas (education and entertainment courses popular in the 19th and 20th century). One such event in 1933 at the Hartford YWCA included two short plays, “The Starvation Army,” and “Gimbal Sprockets.” There were talks on the purpose of unemployed organizations. The event concluded with the audience singing from song sheets distributed by the players.
Brookwood spirit spilled over from formal presentations as well: a massive anti-war meeting was held at Trinity College on November 9, 1934 which included a speech by a Brookwood instructor. The students voted to abolish army officer training at the school and to oppose war preparation.
The labor college was under attack almost from the start by American Federation of Labor (AFL) president William Green. As the head of the biggest coalition of U.S. and Canadian unions, Green did not want another power base popping up to challenge his authority or the dominant theory of “business unionism” (as opposed to militant and democratic labor organizing). For most of Brookwood’s existence, that opposition came from college director A.J. Muste, a former preacher who led strikes in the textile industry and was a constant irritant to Green.
Predictably, Green used tried and true smear tactics against his enemies, literally calling Brookwood faculty and students godless communists. “That anti-religious doctrine is being taught and that pro-Soviet demonstrations have been held at the school are equally absurd, “ Muste countered. Although many Brookwood graduates came to the school’s defense, Green was successful in pressuring individual unions from continuing their financial support.
“I love workers’ education,” Green quipped, “but I am not going to stand by and see our AFL equip young men to come home and fight us if I can help it.” The AFL’s desire to control worker education and direction was locked in when it developed its own education department in 1951.
Brookwood’s enduring legacy, however, has lived on. One of the school’s teachers was Merlin Bishop, who joined the UAW and was inside the occupied Flint, Michigan automotive factory during the historic 1936-37 sit-down strike.
Bishop not only helped physically to defend the plant, he led worker education classes for the strikers. Bishop went on to build UConn’s labor education program.
Thanks in part to Brookwood, the Highlander Research and Education Center of Tennessee trained Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, and the occupied factory floors of Flint automotive gave rise to the 400,000-member United Auto Workers union.