Organized Labor and the Dewey Philosophy


Dewey's philosophy in education has an obvious importance for organized labor. Because the trade unions originated out of deep social needs and are themselves a collective effort to meet those basic economic needs by a major section of the community, the implications of Dewey's theories to the ideals and actions of the unions should be examined. Then, too, insofar as Dewey's seminal ideas have changed the grade and high schools and colleges, they must have seriously influenced the educational procedures which affect the formative years of the sons and daughters of over 15 million trade unionists, not to mention the workers of hand and brain who comprise the total 42 millions of wage-earners of the United States. But here also an attempt will be made to see what changes in attitude might be expected if the philosophy of Dewey were applied to trade union practices. What might we expect as the students leave school and participate in community life and in their trade unions and professional associations?

His native background in Vermont would not have given Dewey much contact with organized labor in his early years, but his common sense soon made him brush aside all professional snobbery which would divide the teacher from the ranks of organized labor. His record of activity in the formation of what is now the Teachers Guild in New York, with Henry R. Linville and others, has been continued down to a message to the most recent Convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFL). [1]

It would, of course, be a mistake to think that there has been a reciprocal interest and a wide conscious study of the philosophy of John Dewey in the ranks of American organized labor, or even in the workers' education section of its activities. However, there is something in common between the economic pragmatism of Samuel Gompers and the philosophic pragmatism of John Dewey. The approach of the American Federation of Labor in working out its theories in the light of daily practice is surely experimentalism. As a matter of fact, just as Dewey has been accused of having no organized body of thought, so the AFL has been accused of emphasizing rule‑of‑thumb methods to the exclusion of any understanding of ultimate goals. Deeper consideration, however, shows that in both instances the assumption is not well based, although usually the long term aims are implicit rather than fully stated.

It is important to recognize what there is in common between the practices of organized labor in the United States and the educational practices arising from Dewey's theories. There are many touching points and, indeed, there may be an increasing mutual influence between the two.

In the general approach to education, there have been three main attitudes clear and distinct from the position taken by Dewey. There is the educator who believes that he can be "above the battle" and that education is somehow an intrinsic good in itself, remaining unsoiled from partisan interests and from the sectional struggles which are present in all communities.

Then there is the second position which believes that education should serve the status quo and be a mental buttress for all existing institutions. In the early stages of education in the United States and elsewhere, there were unintelligent Tories who even did not recognize the usefulness of education in this respect. The Tories prophesied that if workers were given education, then they would no longer be content to remain in "that station of life into which it had pleased God to call them." There is, for example, the much quoted denunciation made by Governer Berkeley of Virginia:

"I thank God there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both." [Report to the Committee for the Colonies, 1671]

When public education was grudgingly adopted, it was surrounded by many safeguards. For example, Hannah More (1745‑1835) only wanted that "the poor be able to read their Bibles and qualify for domestic duties, but not to write or to be enabled to read Tom Paine or be encouraged to rise above their position." Both in Britain and in the United States men like William Cobbett and Thomas Hodgskin respectively denounced such education as "the indoctrination of the poor with the principles of submission to authority" and "training for the yoke."

As a natural reaction from this educational support for the status quo were early developments of workers' education which tried definitely to undermine the status quo. This third attitude was Marxian in its economics and in its interpretation of history, although it was modified in the United States. Later the trade unions in Britain gave some support to this, although the Marxist ideas were revised and adapted and are distinguished clearly from their later Stalinist applications.

In this view, education was a reflex of the economic interests of the ruling group, and the group rising from below would necessarily oppose and replace the educational theories of their masters. In Democracy and Education (1916) Dewey criticizes both Plato and Marx for the divisive effects of their ideas of education — Plato for elevating a literary ruling caste and Marx for splitting the community into rival classes. [2]

Probably the trade unions in the United States, where class mobility was present, were influenced by their cooperation with Horace Mann to win support for the tax‑supported public school. Mann thought of education as a balance wheel to keep opposing economic forces in equilibrium. Education was to destroy the tendency of capital to dominate and of labor to cringe. If all had opportunity and well‑being, than envy would have no base. [3]

Dewey implicitly rejected all the three positions and insisted upon education as an instrument whereby communication among the various groups in the community can be achieved. Education was a problem‑solving process. In every instance the problems did not stand still but were themselves in a continued process of change. This dialectic view, of course, applied to all social ideas and institutions which were perforce constantly changing. Its acceptance would remove fear of change, including the fear based on mutual ignorance between management and labor. The trade unionist has the same basic needs as other members of the community — beyond individual technical skills and competency, he needs to know his civic rights and responsibilities.

Dewey, over the years, has never hesitated to express his belief in fundamental social reforms. The reader might well consult the essay, "The Economic Basis of the New Society," written especially for Intelligence in the Modern World, edited by Joseph Ratner (Modern Library, 1938). Here Dewey reprints his views expressed 20 years earlier, and regrets that he still has to insist upon the necessity of the right to work, the intelligent administration of our industries and also on the right of workers to participate in the administration of industry. His paragraph on this third point is worth quoting (p. 422):

"The third phase that I mention is the need of securing greater industrial autonomy, that is to say, greater ability on the part of the workers in any particular trade or occupation to control that industry, instead of working under these conditions of external control where they have no interest, no insight into what they are doing, and no social outlook upon the consequences and meaning of what they are doing. This means an increasing share given to the laborer, to the wage earner, in controlling the conditions of his own activity. It is so common to point out the absurdity of conducting a war for political democracy which leaves industrial and economic autocracy practically untouched, that I think we are absolutely bound to see, after the war, either a period of very great unrest, disorder, drifting, strife—I would not say actual civil war, but all kinds of irregular strife and disorder, or a movement to install the principle of self‑government within industries."

Dewey indignantly describes the disastrous failure to provide job security and the waste of precious human material created by unemployment. He shows how low our standards are for the majority of the workers and insists that we could produce and distribute more efficiently. As an educator, he protests against the waste of the precious capacities of human beings.

For more than thirty years Dewey has asked for a full and extensive program of social security, even before some of the trade unions recognized this need and long before their successful current requests for pensions and other forms of welfare work.

Writing in 1938, he saw clearly that one of the first indications of Fascism was the suppression of the trade unions. The trade Starr‑Dewey and Labor unions insist, and so does Dewey, that industry must be run for men and not men for industry. In education the schools exist for the pupils. Not subjects but children are taught. His idea of planning was not the blueprint imposed from above but the society which was continuously planning by the participation of its own intelligent members. He repeated the Emersonian idea that "Ends pre-exist in the means" and stressed that we can get a democratic society only by the democratic participation of the people who are making it.

The extensive writings of Dewey have no blueprint plan, no attractive slogans for organized labor. When Dewey writes about "How to Anchor Liberalism" (Labor and Nation, Nov.‑Dec. 1948), he advises labor technicians to recognize "the need of a thorough examination of what freedom demands under present conditions if it is to be a reality and not just a cover of this and that scheme." He wants Labor to know "the specific means and agencies by which organized planning and intervention will result in promotion of freedom . . . ." Instead of abstract talk about "the individual," Dewey advocates "more study of specific social conditions to try to discover what kind of organization . . . will bring about a wider and hence more equitable distribution of the uses and enjoyments that our present technical resources make possible." Surely the trade unions with their increasing research and educational facilities represent not only a partner in such a study but an important potential aid to apply the findings of such a study.

Sidney Hook (European Ideologies, pp. 1059‑1063) has shown that organized labor is consciously and, in part, unconsciously humanist because it places the welfare of human beings above output as the aim of industry. Logically this is parallel to the Dewey view that the growth of the child is much more important than the adherence to the rules of any educational system. And the end product of education (if it is not a contradiction to speak of a terminal point to a never‑ending process) should be an alert, useful citizen shouldering his civic responsibilities. Obviously such responsibilities include the citizen organized where he works as well as where he lives. The participating student in the classroom engaged in group activity will prepare himself to be the participating voter and trade unionist. For our modern society is composed of a com�plex of groups, interacting one upon the other. Paternalism in in�dustrial relations has become outmoded and furnishes no permanent base for the relations of adults, for both teacher and parent must consider themselves to be expendable. Unchallenged dictatorship is alien and indeed inefficient and wasteful in the modern factory. Collective bargaining between representatives of Manage�ment and Labor seems the best proven method for industrial relations and fully in accord with democratic ideals with its respect for majority opinion and also for the value and integrity of the individual worker.

Dewey as a fervent advocate of "continuing education" would certainly welcome the activity of trade unions in the field of adult education particularly when it emphasizes "adequate instruction for a new type of citizenship in which political questions will be seen in their economic background and bearings." In his essay "Education and the Social Order" there is also suggested that both subject matter and study methods need reorganization upon a "directly social basis and with a social aim." Obviously the unions would benefit both directly and indirectly from such a move which would avoid the danger of planning by dictatorship. Here also is the real antidote to the dangers of "bureaucracy" and "statism" and the fear that individuals would look to the state for handouts in exchange for their freedom.

Instead of the onetime conception of trade union education as a weapon in the class struggle of ideas, it can become the means whereby the union can understand itself better. But communication will not stop there because (if the employers' corporation no longer practices unrestrained exploitation and no longer refuses even to recognize the union) the educational activity of the union can be used to remove blocks in the communications between the union and management by studying the industry itself and discovering opportunities for mutual cooperation. Instead of putting a sharp emphasis upon differences both in immediate and ultimate aims, trade union education may also serve as a liaison with modem management and public opinion. Naturally, when the labor unions endeavor to obtain over‑all social security, they must appeal to the community as a whole. They do not build old‑fashioned barricades in the street but must try to engineer social consent for their reforms. Education becomes an instrument for making social change; it functions to solve problems and to remain critically alert to examine the faults and weakness of trade unions and other social institutions. Constantly new problems, new solutions and new shapes and forms of democracy will be emerging.

Some suggestions are in order upon the practical applications and results of the Dewey philosophy in the current operation of modern trade unions. How should we think, write and act in labor unions in line with Dewey's influence? Obviously the unions should be conscious of the oncoming generation and be prepared to cooperate with the lively students as they come into industry from the the modern schools. Indeed the unions should not wait for graduation exercises to make contacts. At least in one high school in Newark, N. J., a Labor History Week has been instituted, with the local union leaders brought in to serve as supplementary teachers and to give information about local union activity. Dewey repeatedly attacked the false division between the liberal and mechanical arts and the resulting snobbish disdain for manual skills. Unions conscious of change should be able to plan ahead in cooperation with the school to meet the labor needs of industry by training plans.

With or without the benefit of earlier preparation, the young union members particularly should be fully informed about their union rights and duties. If we believe that "whoever is affected by any decision or policy should have some part in shaping it," then we should see that the new members are assisted to understand the structure and functioning of their union as well as its history and problems. But that knowledge is best acquired by its exercise. "The creative quality of life is to be found in communication‑participation." You learn responsibility by being made responsible. Unions should be at pains to activize their members by allocating duties and responsibility to them with, naturally, competent supervision in the early stages.

Unions, in too many instances, suffer more from apathy than from outside attack. The member who never attends meetings, who thinks of the union merely as a penny‑in‑the‑slot machine to deliver shorter hours and higher wages, is a source of weakness. Democracy too easily dies by default in labor organizations as elsewhere. The absence of member participation results in an arrogation of authority by the officers, even among those leaders who initially try to plan it otherwise. Unchecked power corrupts in unions as elsewhere. The training, development and encouragement of the younger members despite all difficulties — the brashness of youth and the rigidity of old age — should be given support.

The attitude of the officers would also be improved by better training and preparation. They too would be conscious of "participating planning" with their colleagues and members. Neither officers nor rank and file members would be a yes‑man chorus for the higher echelons of power. Authoritarian methods in industry were challenged by the unions as they were in the school by the ideas of Dewey. Union leaders should not be a new type of boss, repeating the mistakes of the dictatorial employer.

The great parliaments of organized labor in its union conventions will be not only parades of union strength with long speeches from public figures to patient delegates. Rather they will be a sober stock‑taking and a preparation for future contingencies, with local delegates doing most of the talking. Weak spots, such as the discrimination exercised by a few unions against Negroes, would be acknowledged and remedies sought. Dangers of ossification and corruption are possible in unions as in other human organizations. (Organized religion, politics, education and even bridge clubs share the danger of control by a few.) Internal democracy in the union would prevent the trend to dictatorship by permanent leaders. The possible rotation of office, the evils of factionalism and how to overcome them, the combining of efficiency with democratic controls are all dependent upon an alert and active participating membership. Some unions suffer from the curse of bigness and personal domination as do some corporations. Democratic procedures, if preserved, can take care of their own mistakes.

If unions accept the Dewey conception of unending change, then they will flexible and adaptable to industrial and social changes. The larger view would surely rule out the jurisdictional disputes and anti‑social practices which on occasion discredit organized labor. In addition to developing internal understanding, unions will better recognize their role in industry and in the community, and thus integrate themselves into community life. Many progressive elements in the community are ready and willing to cooperate with responsible labor organizations.

With such applications of Dewey's philosophy to secure a better informed and active membership, an improved and imaginative personnel and leadership, a more farsighted policy and closer cooperation with other sections of the community, organized labor can better "understand and rectify specific social ills" and participate in planning for real freedom and a better world when our social understanding will equal our technical powers.


[1] To the 1949 Convention of the AFT, in his 90th year Dewey wrote in part:

"I do not believe that any educational organization is more ready or better prepared to take such a courageous view of the present situation than is the American Federation of Teachers. It has never been a body to take the cheap and easy way; it has never cultivated illusions about the seriousness of the work to be done. It has recognized that together with its larger organization, the American Federation of Labor, it has a cause that demands, and that has obtained, and will continue to obtain alertness of observation and planning, and solidarity in action. It knows, from experience, that these things bring their own reward with them. Confidence and courage grow with exercise. There are many fields of labor within the American Federation of Labor. There is none in which the need, the opportunity, and the reward are surer than in that of teaching.

"I count it one of the satisfactions of my own teaching career that I have had from the first, the opportunity to be a member of a Local of the American Federation of Teachers. Today I prize this special opportunity to join in rejoicing in its past, and in looking forward with confidence to its future.

"May it continue to be steadfast in the great work in behalf of the schools of America, and thereby throughout our common America, in a world that must grow in common understanding, if it is not to perish." [—> main text]

[2] Cf. Jim Cork's valuable essay "Karl Marx and John Dewey," pp. 331‑350. [—> main text]

[3] "Surely nothing but universal education can counterwork this tendency to the domination of capital and the servility of labor. If one class possesses all the wealth and the education, while the residue of society is ignorant and poor, it matters not by what name the relation between them may be called: the latter, in fact and in truth, will be the servile dependants and subjects of the former. But, if education be equably diffused, it will draw property after it by the strongest of all attractions; for such a thing never did happen and never can happen, as that an intelligent and practical body of men should be permanently poor. . . .

"Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance‑wheel of the social machinery. . . . It gives each man the independence and the means by which he can resist the selfishness of other men. It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich: It prevents being poor." [Annual Report on Education (1848), pages 668‑669] [—> main text]

SOURCE: Starr, Mark. "Organized Labor and the Dewey Philosophy," in: John Dewey, Philosopher of Science and Freedom: A Symposium, edited by Sidney Hook (New York: Dial Press, 1950), pp. 184-193.

Mark Starr (1894-1985): Labor Educator & Esperantist
Study Guide

Includes all the following & more:

"Mark Starr: Socialist Educator": Interview with Martin Lawn

"A Pioneer in Workers' Education: Mark Starr and Workers' Education in Great Britain" by Ronda Hauben

Mark Starr (1894-1985): Workers' Educationist

"La Filozofio de Jozefo Ditsgen" de Mark Starr

Usona Mozaiko” (1968) de Mark Starr

Mark Starr in East Africa & Bulgaria (News Clippings, 1963)

Esperanto and Labour (by Mark Starr)

The Student Movement vs. . . . Mark Starr? (Kenneth Rexroth)

Pragmatism” by Marcus Hitch

Esperanto & Laborista Movado / Esperanto & the Labor Movement

Esperanto Study Guide / Esperanto-Gvidilo

Pragmatism and Its Discontents: Annotated Selected Bibliography

American Philosophy Study Guide


American Philosophy and the Labor Movement (1962)
by George Novack (writing under pseudonym William F. Warde)

Communism and an International Language by Mark Starr

A Worker Looks At History by Mark Starr

A Worker Looks At History

Mark Starr @ Ĝirafo

Mark Starr (1894-1985) « Family Connections

Mark Starr - Vikipedio

Home Page | Site Map | What's New | Coming Attractions | Book News
Bibliography | Mini-Bibliographies | Study Guides | Special Sections
My Writings | Other Authors' Texts | Philosophical Quotations
Blogs | Images & Sounds | External Links

CONTACT Ralph Dumain

Uploaded 19 November 2004
Links added 9 Jan & 29 Dec 2008,
6 Jan 2009, 23 June 2009, 8 Jan 2010,
3 July 2012, 26 Nov 2013,
23 Jan 2022, 23 July 2022

Site ©1999-2022 Ralph Dumain