Why Trade Unionists Need to Go to College

Getting a college degree is hard work. If it weren’t, it would be of much less value. But new students and even continuing students, pressed by the many demands on their time and energies, often ask, “Why do I need to go to college?” After all, they say, “I’m just going to be an electrician, a plumber, carpenter, painter, teacher’s assistant” (or a sheet metal worker or an orderly or a motorman or a whatever). “And I don’t need book learning to bend pipe or pull wire” (or, again, whatever).

Why do blue-and white-collar wage earners need to go to college? What do they learn in a literature class or a history class or a writing class that will help them on or off the job?

There are three answers to this question. First, a college education opens up job and career opportunities that would not otherwise be available. That is what most people these days think going to college is all about. And with good reason. High-paying upper-level positions generally require the skills and knowledge that a college degree signifies and anyone who wants to move into any kind of supervisory or managerial position later in their career should go to college.

But career advancement is neither the only nor the most important reason to go to college. A second reason for attending college is the unrivaled opportunity for enriching one’s self—for expanding your horizons, for figuring out who you are and what you believe in, and for acquiring new and wider tastes in literature, music, art, etc. Many are reluctant to admit, at least in public, that such things matter. “What do I need enrichment for,” they ask? “I know who I am and what I believe in. Just show me the money!”

To which the appropriate response is, “So you say.” But going from one college class to another where you are asked to think about who you are, what you believe and what you enjoy, in public ways will, inevitably, change you. What is the meaning of life? Why are some countries (and people) rich and some poor? How can people who are different learn to treat each other the same? What is equality, anyway? What is truth? Beauty? Fairness? The Good? Why does it matter?

In exploring these and other ideas you will experience an education that wills affect your continued growth as an adult and as a member of your workplace and community.

But wanting to think about the meaning of life, or to earn a promotion in your chosen field, or even to set up your own business serving a community are not the only reasons wage earners need to go to college. There is a third reason and it has to do with the union movement itself. The union movement needs college-educated leaders at all levels, including the rank-and-file. It cannot effectively represent or be advocates for the interests of working people and their families without confident, articulate, well-educated leaders who know who they are, what they believe in, and what they have to do to secure their fair share.

Where do union members acquire the knowledge and skills required to be strong leaders? One place is certainly “on the job.” The most important influence on a strong union leader is his or her experience as a wage earner. You can’t be a weatherman if you don’t know which way the wind blows.

But a second important place where leaders are formed is in college classrooms, where they learn how to make the case for why workers deserve a fair share—and, more importantly, what that share is and how to go about getting it. Working people need to go to college to be more productive and to learn how to represent and be advocates for themselves on the job and in the wider community. The future of American prosperity and democracy depends upon them—upon you—doing so. There is no prosperity if working people don’t have money and there is no democracy if working people don’t have power.

And no one is going to secure either money or power for working people if we don’t do it ourselves. For democracy and prosperity to continue, wage earners need to organize and press for a voice and a fair share in every arena in which they have a presence.

The ability to do so effectively will be greatly enhanced by going to college. The more you know, the more you can do and the more effective and successful you will become.