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Science Teaching Column: Teaching About Work
by Barbara Beckwith & Joe McDonald
Throughout the past year Joe McDonald and I taught a course on work at Home Base School in Watertown Ma. I am a volunteer, and Joe is a regular salaried staff member. Home Base is a public alternative high school with 100 students drawn mostly from working-class families. It is informal and tries to involve students in individual projects and community work.
Our class had students of all four grades and different reading levels. Meeting once-a-week for 5 hours allowed us to visit work sites and also to have time for discussion and class work.
We wanted our students to meet a lot of working people at work, to see and understand their problems, to recognize and analyze their common concerns. We also wanted them to feel more comfortable with adults, to question and challenge them, and to understand how organizing can effect change. The students kept journals to record their reactions and ideas.
During the first weeks we visited the Peter Bent Brigham and Children’s Hospitals, and the local CBS TV station. The public relations guides dominated and bored us with their dry technical information. We wanted to know how workers felt about their jobs, but the “professionals” we talked to seemed reluctant to share more than facts, and our guide at Peter Bent Brigham whisked us past the hot basement laundry so that we couldn’t talk to the Black women there who folded linen very slowly. The impersonal size of these places and their mystifying technology contributed to our tiredness and boredom.
After reading about factory jobs in Studs Terkel’s Working, we went next to big assembly-line plants and smaller piece-work factories. At the GM Assembly Plant in Framingham, Joe and I occupied the guide while the students hung back to ask questions of the workers. One man called his work the most boring in the world but said he stayed on because he had gotten married and needed the pay. There were once women workers in this plant, but by the time we visited they had all been laid off. The men complained about women workers as “trouble”. The girls in our class were catcalled as we walked along some ot the eight miles of “line”. At least one girl could see why:
I think the reason a lot of those men were acting so ignorant is that after you work at a job you hate and is bad for you for a long time, you become as bad as your job without knowing it.
Leaving the plant, some of the students complained of headaches from the noise and smoke.
At the Dorothy Muriel Bakery, our foreman-guide talked mostly to Joe, while behind his back the workers on the line threw cupcakes to the students. According to the foreman, “These people could better themselves if they wanted to, but they just don’t care.” The cake-decorators were the only workers who could stop to talk if they wanted to; one student said that they seemed happier because “they had a chance to be creative.”
At the Stride-Rite shoe factory, the highly paid, all male leather-cutters contrasted with the non-English-speaking women who were actually sweating as they sewed endless strings of tongues and soles as fast as they could, their salary dependant on the number they could finish. The Raytheon SAM missle factory seemed more elegant (piped-in music, bright lights, expensive equipment), but the students weren’t fooled. A journal entry:
The shoe place had a bad smell, was cramped and was very depressing. Raytheon was clean, bigger, and more cheerful, but it still seemed depressing. People didn’t know what they were doing. At the shoe place you could see what you were making, but at Raytheon you couldn’t even tell what you were working on.
As the course continued, students began bringing in their own job problems: a boss who used a student’s age and part-time status to refuse him a raise, a student who joined a union but then became disgusted by its inaction, a student who had conflicting feelings about having to work at the family-owned store every day. One student quit his gas station job when he finally added up his out-of-pocket wages and found they amounted to just 86 cents an hour. Some students began making important comparisons:
In my hotel job, there was lint all over which probably wasn’t good for my lungs and it was very hot. I had to fold the towels quickly before they got wrecked. But if I wanted to I could take breaks in between each load. And sometimes people would help me. So it wasn’t as bad as an assembly line.
Joe and I felt a need to counter the cynical, “that’s the way it is” attitude that we got from both our students and many of the workers we interviewed, so we brought in a series of people who were working for change. A waitress talked about union organizing at different restaurants, and a woman from the “9-5” secretarial group talked about organizing at Harvard. A car mechanic told us how her collective rotated all duties so that everyone would learn all the skills. Frank Mirer of SESPA talked about how work is organized in China, showed slides and answered students’ questions. A United Farm Workers organizer showed the film, Why We Boycott and talked about their fight against Gallo and the Teamsters. We invited the Teamsters to class, but they refused. Four students, acting on their own, not as students doing assigned work, checked all the grocers in Watertown to see if they had scab grapes. They spent an afternoon explaining, arguing and strategizing, and got six promises to stop selling grapes out of twelve stores. The next week they returned to find just one store free of grapes, the rest with various excuses. In the end they gave up. partly because one parent feared Teamster violence, but they had learned a lot: that organizing takes time and commitment, a good clear head. a knowledge of the facts, and an ability to understand the other side.
Meanwhile, in the course, we decided to do some labor history in order to give our students a perspective on change. We read Meltzer’s Bread and Roses, and each student researched a different strike. It was a great day when some students, as they were telling each other the story of their strikes, called out. “That’s like my strike. The cops were brought in then too … The union leaders were blamed for the violence then too.” This pro-union picture was later qualified by interviews of disgruntled strikers on a UAW strike line, by hearing parents argue over the usefulness of unions the night of a parents’ meeting, and by reading of reactionary union actions in the Somerville work-oriented newspaper, The People’s Voice.
After doing some job shadowing and mock job interviews, our final unit was on economics, including budget and tax projects, comparison pricing, and an analysis of rising food costs. Ruth Crocker of SESPA came to talk to us about the politics of the food industry and about vertical food monopolies. The students interviewed their parents and other adults on the topic of food prices. They heard a whole range of views: “It’s the middlemen .. .it’s the greedy consumer … it’s the big bosses at the top … put one less sugar in your coffee … spend less money on Viet-Nam-space-CIA-FBI”. The class kept a graph of rising prices at ten local food stores.
We read some radical and conventional economics booklets. A pro-market economy booklet got us into an important argument over whether the consumer decides what will be manufactured “by casting his dollar-vote”. We visited conventional economic institutions: a stock-broker, an ad agency, a bank. At the bank, students wanted to talk about issues like embezzlement, credit-card invasion of privacy, and unfair loan practices.
It is impossible to know exactly how much a course “teaches” the people in it. In this course we wanted to provide our students with the experience of a critical perspective on how our society organizes work and on how it treats its workers. What they concluded, at least immediately, from that experience varied considerably among students. One student, a shoe salesman, still believes in the Horatio Alger myth. Some students are still bored or intimidated by adults, and some students’ anger still goes only as far as cynicism. But most students say they are asking more questions now of adults and institution. One student said that this course had made her see where things arc at in this country. And Joe and I feel we are teaching not just “history” or “journal writing” or “how to interview”, but how to deal with the world, to see what’s wrong with it, and to be part of changing it.
Barbara Beckwith and Joe McDonald
If you want a list of all the job-site visits, films, readings. speakers. assignments and class exercises we did in this course, write B. Beckwith, 8a Appleton Rd., Cambridge, MA 02138.