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223Chapter 7

Education in Working-Class Solidarity: The Summer School for Office Workers

Alice Kessler-Harris

On first acquaintance, the Summer School for Office Workers (SSOW) appears to have been much like the other summer schools for women workers that originated in the 1920s. It was designed, said the organizers, “to bring together women office workers from different sections of the country in order to study the present economic system and the part which they as workers play in our industrial and social life.”1 The school was residential, was located on a college campus, attracted a committed group of students, and drew an impressive faculty from the best eastern and midwestern schools and colleges. Like other labor schools, the SSOW hoped, in the words of one of its founders, to encourage students to engage in “effective group action, growing out of a greater understanding of the forces affecting the students’ economic and social lives.”2 Beyond these broadly stated purposes, however, there were enormous differences.

In contrast to other residential workers’ education programs, the SSOW had a special mission: to break down the barriers between clerical and manual workers. The rationale for this new avenue into workers’ education emerged out of changes in the nature of office work in the early part of the twentieth century, changes that sparked a debate about the relationship of office workers to manual workers and cohered around definitions of class. By the 1920s, the typical office had grown from a small, personal workplace to a large, impersonal center, the people who worked in these centers were increasingly female, and their work was becoming increasingly subdivided as the principles of scientific management took hold. The resulting reduction of most office jobs to routine, non-creative, and repetitive tasks accompanied an enormous growth in the work force.3 Once a relatively select and largely male group, the clerical sector altered to become the most rapidly expanding segment of the work force.

As the character of office jobs changed, some noted the disappearance of the appurtenances that had made office work the province of the middle class. No longer could most office workers expect to exercise judgment and initiative, nor could they expect promotion. Rather, office jobs took on the form of blue-collar labor, with its demands for rote work and its insistence that workers give up any notion of careers in management. And increasingly office workers lacked the assurances of job security that had previously compensated for low pay. Social scientists in Europe and in the United States began to wonder how office workers fit into the lexicon of class. From the perspective of their tasks at work and in their relationships to supervisory staff, office workers seemed more akin to manual laborers than to the professionals and managers who had traditionally constituted the middle class. In terms of income, social relations, and relative leisure, office work increasingly failed to provide a life-style significantly different from that to which manual laborers aspired.

As the real lives of these two groups of workers grew closer, those in the office sectors feared, and therefore rejected, association with manual laborers. Most refused to join unions, for example, yet their real wages and their working conditions declined in the very decades that saw visible improvement in the lives of production workers. Some social scientists feared the likelihood of bitterness and frustration, with inevitable political consequences, as the benefits of a middle-class life-style became unattainable. Others, however, expected a future rapprochement between manual and nonmanual workers. When the new class of workers grew to maturity, it was thought, they would recognize their affinity with blue-collar workers and begin to identify with them instead of hoping to be like their bosses.4

The Summer School for Office Workers emerged out of this climate of debate about the class position of people who worked in offices. The idea came originally from Grace Coyle, a long-time social worker in the Industrial Department of the YWCA who was later to become a professor at Western Reserve University. In 1929, Coyle had just completed a lengthy study of the 4 million people employed in offices that effectively demonstrated the place of women at the bottom of the scale. These women not only suffered the disadvantages of declining wages and job satisfaction, but they were also likely to be the daughters and wives of men who were manual laborers. Convinced that the failure of members of this growing sector of the work force to understand their affinity to other workers deprived them of the capacity to act in political concert, Coyle persuaded Eleanor Coit, director of the Affiliated Summer Schools for Women Workers, to develop a program for office workers. Coit set to work to assemble a board of consultants. To economist Paul Douglas, she explained: “This group of workers are not admitted to either Bryn Mawr or Wisconsin Summer schools, and only a few clerical workers [are admitted to] the Barnard School. Because of the distinct economical problems of this group and the increasing need for a realization of their group problems on the part of clerical workers we have felt that a new school organized to meet the needs of this group would be valuable.”5

Others in the early years of the school stated the case even more strongly. White-collar workers, argued economist Elinor Pancoast, were less “economically mature” than industrial workers. They had a different psychology, rooted in an older belief in a continuing opportunity to “rise to positions of business power and security which formerly set office workers apart from industrial workers.”6 To avoid feelings of isolation, an enhanced sense of individual responsibility, self-blame, and perhaps ultimately fascism, it was, noted one influential SSOW faculty member in 1936, “high time that these girls working in offices identify their economic interests with those of the girls working at the machines of industry.”7 The average industrial worker had long ago learned that her security lay in collective struggle; the SSOW meant to teach office workers not only the lessons of collective action but those of class consciousness as well. “The integration of the individual office worker with his group by the development of a sympathetic understanding of the labor movement” was its primary purpose.8 Office workers had to learn something about working-class solidarity.

If the idea of the school was to enlighten office workers about their real places in the work force, its form derived from the decade-long experience of residential summer schools for women begun at Bryn Mawr in 1921. Bryn Mawr and its successors at Barnard, Wisconsin, and in the South had successfully demonstrated the advantage of residential experiences for women as a way of maximizing the strengths of a shared female experience in the process of organization. To the women who organized the SSOW the model must have seemed ideally suited to office workers. Here was a rapidly growing group of female workers, seduced by the possibility of white-collar work into jobs that seemed to offer upward mobility but that in fact increasingly held only limited possibilities. SSOW founders firmly believed that even a brief education, sensitive to the particular roles of office workers, could encourage them to see the work force and their places in it more realistically.

What had worked in the 1920s ran into difficulties in the 1930s, however, for both the form of education for women and its content faced the challenges posed by a newly aggressive labor movement. In the 1920s, workers’ education for women had relied heavily on women’s organizations. Recruitment, funds, and personnel had come from women’s networks. But the Depression and the New Deal created a political climate more conducive to trade union organization than ever before. The still craft-centered American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the more spirited Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) remained, however, primarily committed to old definitions of class, relegating white-collar workers to secondary places in a struggle that centered on control over heavy industry. In an effort to accommodate itself to the vision of a militant unionism, the SSOW shifted course. Instead of encouraging office workers to see themselves as a new proletariat, the school emphasized the need to bring a broader range of white-collar workers into trade unions. It stretched its concept of office workers so far that the focus on the special problems posed by socioeconomic change for a particular group virtually disappeared. In a period of heightened class awareness, the school abandoned its concern for the sensibilities of female office workers in the interests of a larger class that it could neither define nor fully understand.

The SSOW’s increasing identification of broader categories of workers as candidates for unionization led it to an ever-closer alliance with, and finally dependence upon, the labor movement. But the 1930s no more solved the problem of how to place this new class than had the earlier decades, and when union militancy settled into day-to-day existence, the school found itself the servant of a labor movement whose main interests still lay in the old blue-collar sectors. This was not necessarily failure, for the SSOW served the labor movement effectively until its demise in 1962. But the cost of such service was abandoning notions of developing class consciousness among a new group of workers.

Confusion, however, emerged only later. In the beginning, Coit pursued the notion of an office workers’ school energetically. To refine the new vision, she consulted leaders of the old progressive coalition that had spearheaded reform for women workers in the early years of the century and representatives of self-defined feminist groups. These included Elisabeth Christman of the National Women’s Trade Union League (NWTUL), traditional arbiter between working women and trade unions; Margaret Williamson of the YWCA; Frances Cummings of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women’s Clubs, then among the most militant of feminist organizations; as well as representatives of the National Jewish Welfare Board, the League of Girls Clubs, and the Women’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. Although she hoped eventually for trade union involvement, Coit did not, in the initial phases, work closely with any union leaders. The start-up committee consulted only with the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, and with the Stenographers, Bookkeepers, and Assistants Union. Several factors probably explain Coit’s failure to reach out for trade union support. The craft-centered and production-oriented AFL had never encouraged unionization among office workers. Organized office workers were few and far between. In 1930 fewer than 2.5 percent of all women clericals belonged to trade unions, most of them to the Stenographers, Bookkeepers, and Assistants—a left-wing union which aroused Coit’s fears that the school “should not be flooded by the communists.” Much as Coit claimed to regret the absence of “adequate representation” from the organized clerical workers, she never filled the gap in the planning stage, and she waited until 1931 to add a member of the Bookkeepers, Stenographers, and Accountants Union to the committee.9

Together the planning group developed a concrete notion of what the school might be. Discussion focused on two issues: the mechanisms by which clerical workers could be encouraged to develop a group identity, and the potential for divisiveness inherent in separating clerical workers and industrial workers from each other in an educational institution. Underlying both was the implicit acknowledgment that women who were clerical workers shied away from either using trade union tactics or allying with those who did. As one student put it somewhat later, “Office workers don’t consider themselves as really part of the ‘working class.’10 But since, in the eyes of the SSOW organizers, this was a misperception that inhibited office workers from adequately understanding the world around them, undermining it became the school’s first task.

Planning discussions expressed some of these concerns concretely. Trade unionist Philip Ziegler, president of the Brotherhood of Railway Clerks, preferred, as he wrote to Alice Shoemaker of the Wisconsin Summer School, “to have our women members associated with workers in other trades rather than segregated. For the purpose of developing labor solidarity and giving workers some understanding of each other’s problems I felt that there should be no separation as between trades and classes.” Like other members of the committee and the clerical workers they surveyed, however, he soon agreed that the differences between women factory and office workers warranted separate instruction. His members, for example, reported that “they didn’t think” they “would fit in with the factory girls” and they “were so far ahead of the factory workers in education that they would be under a handicap if they were placed in classes with the factory workers.”11 Others thought that the clerical workers would have difficulty getting “acclimated” to the greater militancy of the factory workers and feared that they would be overwhelmed by them.12

The upshot of the debate was an agreement to reach unity through separation. Committee members, as Coit put it, agreed “that every effort must be made to have this educational project developed in such a way as to make the clerical group feel increasingly a part of the larger group . . . to emphasize the common interests of the clerical workers with other workers.”13 Unwilling to challenge the clerical workers’ strong sense of identity, the committee urged separate standing within the Affiliated Schools for Workers network. The SSOW was to have its own board of directors, with which the head of the Affiliated Schools would deal. The board would work closely with the schools for industrial workers, yet be free to develop its own direction. This, it was felt, would create a consciousness “on the part of clerical workers that they had distinct problems” while opening the door to trade union activity.14

The planning committee’s first official statement of purpose trod the narrow line between class consciousness and the individuality and upward mobility widely attributed to clerical workers. Faced with surveys that revealed office workers to be interested in job achievement, Coit wrote to Frances Cummings that the school would “offer to office workers an opportunity for study and for development in the understanding of life. The school,” she went on, “is planned as a workers’ education project. It is especially concerned in the group interests of office workers and in a deeper understanding by those workers of their economic life.”15 All mention of trade unionism, collective action, and social awareness were carefully excluded.

These relatively innocuous goals proved to be far too cautious in the context of the changing times. Between 1929 and July 1933, when the first group of thirty-three female clerical and office workers actually met, the stock market crashed, Herbert Hoover was driven from the White House, and a New Deal was proclaimed. Stimulated by these amazing economic circumstances, the labor movement stirred, providing a focal point for working-class efforts to organize. Simultaneously, Communist Party activity increased, raising economic issues to the forefront of consciousness. All these things led to more immediate involvement with economic issues. So, when the first call for applicants went out, potential students were told that the program was “planned to give the office worker a better understanding of the social and economic forces which are controlling her working life, and to form a basis for further study and for intelligent action in her community.”16 Applicants between twenty and thirty-five years old were asked to pay $12 a week for all expenses. They were not told that the committee hoped for fifty students.

Recruiting proved more difficult than the staff anticipated. Relying on networks of volunteer organizations such as the YWCA, the staff had already been forced to push back a projected 1932 start-up by a year. Even so, two requirements hindered the effort. Because they wanted young women to return to their communities with the ideas and inspiration gathered from their experience, the committee agreed to admit only “girls who have had some preparatory work in local classes.” And even these “girls” had to provide part of their own expenses if their local committee or organization could not or would not subsidize them. On June 26, 1933, Coit complained that they still had only fourteen definite students. And on July 25, ten days before the summer school was to open, they were still recruiting. The thirty-three students who finally met at Oberlin College for the two-week opening session represented a range of experience. They came from fifteen cities and eleven organizations. Most were sent by community organizations and business girls’ clubs. Three were members of office workers’ unions. Among them were stenographers, bookkeepers, file clerks, secretaries, and office machine operators.

From the beginning the SSOW adopted the content and pedagogical style that had become the hallmark of the industrial schools. Classes focused on issues of economics, social ethics, and community life. They utilized materials drawn from popular literature, but attempted to expose students to a broad spectrum of opinion and encouraged the use of the college library. In 1933 the reading list included Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization and Harold Faulkner’s American Economic History, as well as an array of fiction and biography. But most important, an extraordinary group of teachers (Theresa Wolfson, Orlie Pell, and Clara Kaiser among them) managed to turn the classroom into a vital forum for discussion, debate and critical thinking.

Teachers began with the students’ concrete experience and moved from there to generalization and abstraction, and finally to the formation of informed opinion. They were concerned not with memorization so much as with the ability to think, argue, and influence. Because so much depended on teaching skills, instructors were carefully selected for their flexibility and adaptability. All instructors were expected to aid individual students in resolving the problems that emerged out of their own work experiences and at the same time to guide discussions to fruitful conclusions for the group as a whole. Since the entire group in the first two years was female, issues such as the passing over of women for promotion, unequal pay, and sexual harassment were important parts of the discussion.17

These methods proved enormously successful. Before they left, participants in the first summer institute formed a continuation committee to help recruit for next year. They prepared to work in small groups in their own communities, urged the school to extend the program to four weeks in 1934, and debated the feasibility of a six-week session. And they raised, but did not resolve, two issues of continuing importance. How, they asked, should occupational lines be drawn? And should men be admitted to the SSOW? For the moment, they recommended that the school be restricted to female office workers—or those temporarily unemployed who were usually office workers. And they urged every student to return to her community and conduct local classes in the winter. To maintain contact, they undertook to put out a newsletter, called “The Office Worker.”18

Students seem to have been more amenable to notions of unity and more class conscious than organizers believed. At any rate, SSOW founders were delighted at the awareness of group interests that emerged from this two-week session. At its culmination, students wrote and presented a play that stressed the capacity of office workers to learn that they too were workers. It included a rousing rendition of the following song to the tune of “Polly Wolly Doodle.”

The Union is the place for me,

The place for working girls

Who want some time to sing and play

And money we can spend.


On the line, on the line, on the picket, picket line

We’ll win our fight, our fight for the right

On the picket, picket line.

The girl who scabs is the girl who’s yellow

And is a sight to see

We’ll kick her out, We’ll keep her out

With the picket, picket line.

As plans proceeded for the second, and then the third and fourth sessions, questions implicit in the early discussions began to emerge as problems. Only three of the first-year students were trade union members. But, according to one participant, “We all came to the decision that the office worker needed unionization, and left with the resolution to help strengthen the office unions in those cities where there are none.”19 The desire to incorporate more trade union members into the program meshed with faculty and student beliefs that unionization was the only answer to unpredictable working conditions. Wolfson put it this way in 1934: “Organization is a very important method for dealing with the economic problems that office workers are facing and for that reason we are anxious to have that point of view represented at the school.”20 To seal the bond between the school and the trade union movement, the school abandoned its earlier policy of recruiting through local women’s organizations like the YWCA and sought out active trade unionists instead. The continuation committee urged that the second-year group “should give more consideration this year to the question of workers’ organization.”21 Graduates of that group wrote to William Green, then president of the AFL, urging him to add a national organizer for office workers to his staff. “We feel,” wrote Henrietta Klebe, chair of the 1934 continuation committee, “that it will be to the benefit of office workers if they enter the labor movement and it will be a particular benefit to the American Federation of Labor to have them in their ranks.”22

Individuals followed through on these group initiatives. Doris Pieper of Chicago, for example, attended the 1935 session of the school at Bucknell College. Within a week after she returned home, she had contacted John Fitzpatrick of Chicago Federation of Labor about a charter for office workers. And two weeks later, she proudly announced the receipt of a charter for Stenographers, Typists, Bookkeepers and Assistants Union number 20074.23 To her first organizing meeting she invited another SSOW graduate who had been influential in setting up a national committee to do research on clerical workers.

As the CIO began an aggressive campaign to organize office and white-collar workers in the late 1930s, the importance of trade unions in the SSOW increased. By 1935 a third cf the students belonged to trade unions.24 In 1936 the first convention of the United Office and Professional Workers of America (UOPWA) included ten SSOW graduates, and in 1937 nearly half of the SSOW’s residential students belonged to trade unions. The shifting composition, in the context of economic depression and organizational struggle, led to questions about curriculum and about the degree to which the summer school should serve unions.

Attracting trade union members in the new climate of trade union militancy required compromises in both residential conception and program format. Active unionists could rarely-spare four weeks for study and contemplation. Ambitious plans to expand to seventy-five students had already created difficulty in recruiting students, leading school administrators to settle for a split program.25 Beginning in 1935, some students would come for four weeks, others for two. The disruption of the residential community this heralded foreshadowed even greater difficulties to come when organizers decided to add weekend seminars to the residential programs. Weekend seminars addressed concrete issues of union organization and activity, of arbitration and grievance procedures, and of particular industrial problems, rather than the general socioeconomic questions that were at the heart of the residential school program. They succeeded in appealing to a broader constituency and they provided needed services, but at the cost of the sense of community and purpose so crucial to the summer school idea.

These internal changes had a broader political context. After 1936, efforts to organize office workers centered largely in the CIO, and for nongovernment workers, in the newly formed UOPWA. But not even the CIO was wholly committed to office workers, and these unions relied heavily on money and advice from left-wing groups, including the Communists.26 But the Left had no more adequate an analysis of the proletarianization of office workers than had the old AFL. Nor did they consider the extent to which women’s issues needed a specific focus. For their purposes, office workers were simply part of a larger middle class whose organization and support were necessary for victory in the crucial industrial sectors. If the school were to participate effectively in the trade union movement, then it had to play a role in developing a sense of unity among all white-collar workers. Its mission would have to change to address these issues. Feminist support and, specifically, women’s issues such as had emerged during the first year were less important in this context than broader working-class alliances.

Not all students were prepared to make such connections. One second-year student, after reading a newspaper report describing the 1934 investigation for Communist activities of a FERA school directed by Orlie Pell at Oberlin, wrote to a fellow student, “You remember my surprise one night at school while you were there at the singing of socialist songs? Why did they have printed copies of these songs and encourage singing of them?”27 She was not sure, she continued, that she believed in “organizing groups along certain lines, such as unions.”

But many of the school’s most active graduates accepted and encouraged the kind of reaching out implied by Socialist politics. “I am now YCL [Young Communist League"!, too,” wrote a former Newport, Kentucky, student who was then editing the Office Worker to Orlie Pell. “Thought you might like to know that. We are working hard now in the AYC (American Youth Congress). We have rather a good unit,” And she went on to describe some of the activities of other students. She had, she said, visited with one in Indianapolis. “She is working in the union there, also in the YCL, very active in the YW (Young Women’s Christian Association). Myrtle Powell is also in all three of these besides taking an active part in the American Youth Congress.” Then she continued, “I don’t know whether either of the girls care if Marion Barbour knows they are in the YCL but I wouldn’t mention it, but 1 thought you particularly would like their political backgrounds.”28

Pell understood the risks of diversity and willingly accepted them. She supported the notion of admitting men to the summer school, shepherding it through the committee in the winter of 1935, and writing enthusiastically in the summer, “We are going to have men! We have accepted several already and a few more may come in.”29 Among others, Pell believed that the school should be open to political discussion, urging that the “divergence of political opinion” be handled by selecting “representatives of various political opinions among each radical group.” Admitting retail clerks and bringing office workers into closer contact with industrial workers might contribute to easing tensions. Students in the 1936 session supported this notion, and the committee in consequence cautiously agreed to take “a few well qualified” retail clerks for the 1937 school.30

These decisions influenced the school’s curriculum and direction. For in order to attract a broader array of students, the committee began to experiment with different formats and new content. As Clara Kaiser, teacher and supporter, wrote in 1938, “Perhaps what is needed is the widening of its constituency by the inclusion of teachers, social workers and other professionals. . . . The focus in the curriculum under these conditions ought to include the wider problems of all white-collar and professional workers.”31 And indeed, in 1936 the school began to appeal to other white-collar workers through a series of conferences called White-Collar Workshops. The first of these occurred in the summer of 1936, in conjunction with the regular session of the school. Speakers on the general theme of “The Place of the White-Collar Worker in the Labor Movement” included representatives from unions of teachers, post-office clerks, state and federal employees, and the newspaper guild, as well as stenographers, typists, and bookkeepers. They raised questions about the efficacy of industrial or craft union methods for white-collar workers and about whether white-collar workers would take unified political action with industrial workers. Eleanor Coit recorded immense satisfaction with the conference, which, she wrote, “afforded to a group of white-collar workers” the opportunity “to think constructively about their place in the labor movement.”32 A successor conference held in 1937 raised the issue of organization explicitly. Participants were asked to address the question, “Should there be a different approach for middle-class and professional workers toward the labor movement than that of the industrial workers?”33

Students responded to the issue of white-collar identification with sufficient enthusiasm to encourage the SSOW national committee to raise the issue of expanding the school’s constituency yet again. “One of the important questions now under discussion,” reported Eleanor Coit in October 1937, “is the possible extension of the admission policy of the school to include white-collar workers other than office workers, such as teachers and social service employees.”34 These students, she suggested, might be financed by scholarships from the national offices of white-collar unions. To serve these new groups, the SSOW added a new training seminar to its summer sessions beginning in 1937. Primarily designed to teach the principles of workers’ education to teachers, the seminar served union education programs.

The issue that had haunted the school’s founders in 1933 had by now been resolved. In 1933, students had been asked to identify with workers. Ironically, as opportunities to organize broadened, the school’s sense of itself narrowed. In 1937 students were asked to understand that “all of our girls are not individual workers but are part of a great many white-collar workers who needed to be made aware of their part in the entire social scene.”35 Thus students were no longer workers, but white-collar workers. They could, however, organize. As one faculty member put it, the psychology of the students had changed. “In the early days of the school,” she said, “most of the students had a more academic interest in the labor movement, assuming that it did not concern them personally. Now their place in the labor movement is accepted.”36

This shift to a labor movement orientation created inevitable pressures. In December 1937, the SSOW committee debated “whether the emphasis which certain unions feel it is necessary to put on immediate needs in contrast to long-range objectives would cause the school to modify its curriculum in any way.”37 Although then, and in the future, the committee affirmed the school’s humanistic orientation, classroom problems became more specifically defined and the curriculum inevitably more problem oriented. Workshops included instruction on preparing graphs, charts, and other visual materials. Techniques of trade union organization were specifically discussed.38 True to their original pedagogy, teachers continued to use students’ own experiences as launching pads. In 1939, for example, the school stressed the theme of community organization, and a course in community relationships discussed three problems: securing facilities in a disadvantaged community, racial discrimination, and education for trade unionism in a community club.39

By the end of the 1930s the shape of the school had emerged. From a school for office workers, it had broadened gradually first to include retail clerks and then to serve other white-collar workers. Originally an institution supportive of union organizing, it had taken organization as a major goal, adding a full-time trade union person to its faculty in 1939. And from seeking out a wholly female student body it had moved eagerly to recruit men, who constituted nearly a third of the students in 1939 and whose members would increase steadily thereafter until, in some years in the 1950s, they made up a majority.

None of these changes smoothed the path of the executive committee. In the first seven years, the school moved from campus to campus. Oberlin twice, Bucknell, then Northwestern hosted the summer session until the school finally settled in the Chicago area, first at the Chicago Theological Seminary and the University of Chicago and then at Lake Forest College. Annually, the board debated the length of its session—four weeks or three—discussed how two- and four-week students were to be integrated, wondered whether trade union members and nonmembers could or should learn together, and attempted to find new ways to integrate residential students into the increasingly important workshops and seminars. The board experienced constant difficulty in recruiting. “At last I have some applicants for the summer school!”40 wrote a local committee member to Orlie Pell in 1939. Each year the number of students able to stay for a four-week residential period dwindled: twenty-three in 1936, sixteen in 1938, twelve in 1939.41 After the discouraging 1939 figures were in, the board voted reluctantly to shorten the session to three weeks. And each year, the service component of the curriculum grew to encompass the most significant portion of the school’s activities, at least numerically. Contacts with women’s groups that had provided initial funding and guidance, as well as students, now became minimal. The YWCA, WTUL, and Business and Professional Women’s Association retreated in importance as trade unions filled the gap. A 1943 fund-raising letter described the school as “a labor school supported by unions and individuals interested in workers’ education for white-collar workers.”42

The executive committee had come to this description after a long and agonizing discussion spearheaded by the special report it commissioned in 1941 to explore options and goals. Elinor Pancoast, professor of economics at Goucher College and a long-time teacher in the school, took on the task of gathering data and surveying former students. Inconclusive as the final report is, it provides graphic evidence of the school’s record. Only eighty-one of 285 students bothered to return their questionnaires. Of these, fifty-three were union members, and one-third (seventeen) of these had joined unions after their summer school experience. While many students continued to be active in community groups, more than half (forty-six) of those who returned questionnaires had never participated in local classes. As one former student put it, “I didn’t answer the questionnaire which was sent to me because I didn’t think I had anything new to tell you.”43

Among the suggestions adopted by the faculty, several encouraged ways of creating closer friendships with white-collar unions. These included inviting their education directors to a special institute during the school’s summer session, exploring the possibilities of classes in union organizing techniques, and including in the literature statements about what the school could do for the labor movement. While the final report insisted that the school could continue to serve union as well as nonunion groups, the faculty wondered whether “some adjustment of the curriculum is necessary in order to speed up the adaption of non-union students to the objectives of the school.”44

The war years provided the circumstances that led the SSOW to move increasingly toward short-term institutes, workshops, and weekend conferences for trade union leaders and for particular unions. Time pressures pushed sessions down to two weeks and then to one, and into instrumental topics. Sessions focused on such topics as safeguarding labor standards and labor’s demands in the postwar world. And the faculty suggested programs that would teach negotiation, grievance, and arbitration skills—all topics geared to the needs of paid union officials and activists.45 Workshops were organized for telephone workers, and the training programs for teachers in workers’ education took on larger dimensions. As the war ended, the structure of the summer schools involved a grab bag of activities. The two-week session held at Lake Forest in 1946 included, in addition to the two-week residential school, a one-day institute on the international labor movement, a course in community relations, a seminar in the techniques of worker education, and a special course in economics that stressed such topics as price control, full employment, social security, and trade unionism.46 Residential students could participate in one or more of these programs. But they were designed to meet the needs of transient participants. The 1947 session stressed the “arts of communication” in the two-week residential school, and special projects included a leadership seminar for professional workers and a “week-end” school for Chicago postal and telephone unions. “Current economic and social issues constituted the core of the study program,” wrote one commentator, “with special interest shown in living costs, housing discrimination and labor legislation.”47

The school never entirely abandoned its attempts to recruit young women who “are interested in exploring further the problems and the role of the white-collar workers in the world today,” but this goal was undermined by the continuing pattern of union services and by the all-inclusive definition that the term “white-collar” assumed. In 1948, the SSOW changed its name to “White-Collar Workshops” in recognition of the fact that postal employees and telephone workers as well as teachers and social workers had replaced the original secretaries and bookkeepers. Much of the early enthusiasm remained intact. “It was a wonderful revelation to me,” wrote a 1946 student, “to find out that a mixed group can live together in peace and harmony regardless of race, color or creed.”48

But the residential school that struggled to survive in the late 1940s and early 1950s resembled the earlier incarnation very little. In 1951, two-thirds of those resident students who came from the United States were paid union staff from AFL, CIO, and independent locals.49 The 1952 session continued the trend, and in 1953 the board of directors met to decide how to handle the situation. In an acrimonious meeting on February 11, 1953, the board debated the school’s direction. Eleanor Coit made the initial presentation. In the context of “the present day scene,” she suggested, and in view of the comparatively small number of cities and unions that had “sent students to the school in recent years,” she wanted to consider some changes. She was, she said, cognizant of new white-collar organizing efforts in both the AFL and CIO. But she wondered whether “the school’s special function is to meet the needs of rank and file white-collar workers and local union officers, or to answer the more specialized needs of selected union leaders.”50 The board members argued at length and then concluded that they did not want to restrict the school to “the specific training of union leaders.” And it agreed that it “should not give up the resident work” if it was at all possible to continue it.

For the following nine years, the school continued its resident work somewhat haphazardly but focused its major energies on a series of workshops designed to explore the impact of automation on white-collar workers. In 1962 the parent body, the American Labor Education Service, decided to dissolve. With scarcely a whimper, the board of directors of the White-Collar Workshops, among whom sat some of those who had founded the Summer School for Office Workers thirty years before, concurred. Twenty-nine years after the school’s first classes, the board left its tasks to be “picked up by other groups in the economy.”

If it did not meet its original expectations, the SSOW nevertheless served a useful purpose in educating several hundred women in community activism and trade union leadership. It was not entirely the fault of either the school or its organizers that notions of working-class solidarity that had formed the initial conceptual foundation for the school later foundered. External events of the SSOW’s first decade simply captured the school, undermining its theoretical anchors. Caught up in the prevailing trade union militancy, the school abandoned the female support system that had earlier given it stability and a relatively independent financial base. The heady unionization campaigns in which office and other white-collar workers participated left little room for understanding the organizational consequences of dependence on a movement in which both women and white-collar workers were on the periphery. In an attempt to encourage unionization, the SSOW increasingly urged office workers to identify not with blue-collar but with white-collar workers, undermining an initial sense of broader unity among the “working class.” And even when white-collar workers organized, the labor movement’s own conviction that its base lay among manual workers provided no new impetus for the school to continue to participate in programs of economic awareness. Office workers were again left uncomfortably situated, somewhere between the labor movement and white-collar professionals. By the end of the 1930s, the white-collar workshops, having all but abandoned their earlier initiatives toward a broader education, had no choice but to pursue an alliance with an ambivalent trade union movement. This new group of workers remained isolated from the mainstream of labor, possessing, still, aspirations to upward mobility that had relatively little hope for success. In the 1960s—ironically, shortly after the White-Collar Workshops dissolved itself—debates about the nature of a “new working class” opened once again. Sparked by a vital women’s movement and by rapid changes in office technology, the discussion once again poses the issue of how these new workers function in the class structure.

We Went to the Summer School

The following are excerpts from letters of former students of the Summer Schools for Office Workers, written in the 1930s and 1940s, and a skit, “We Take Our Stand,” written and performed by the school’s participants in August 1936. The skit points to the need for solidarity between office and factory workers.51

I have heard so much talk about “widening our horizons.” The Summer School for Office Workers did that for me. I feel that if my experience in Summer School did nothing more than give me a personal view of business girls’ working conditions in the various cities in the United States, it was worth the price. But the Summer School for Office Workers did more than that; it taught me definitely that I must have something to say about the way our affairs are run, and that I can do something about it; that I must be concerned about other business girls’ problems as well as other workers’ problems. We were not told what to do (each student determines the channels through which he can work most effectively), but our course of study gave us intelligent insight into economic and industrial problems.

—Leona B. Hendrix, n.d.

There were two main reasons why I went to the Summer Institute for Office Workers in 1933. The first one was that I was very much interested in studying and discussing unemployment, low wages, and depressions. I had been out of a job for a year and had had lots of time to ponder about the whys and wherefores of these things.

The second reason was curiosity. I had become very curious about the kind of school that would attract office workers to the extent that they would “sacrifice” their precious two weeks’ vacation in order to attend.

The Institute proved to be a fascinating exchange of experiences and ideas. There were no dull, cut-and-dried recitations from memory; instead there were intensely interesting, full-of-life discussions of things which were real and important, of problems which challenged my thinking. I felt as though a door had opened in my brain and rooms which hadn’t been used for years were swept and dusted, and after two exciting weeks of School there was no lack of occupants for the new space. Summer School inspired and challenged me and made me want to think. I saw opportunities for work that I hadn’t been conscious of before and now I actually wanted to take advantage of them.

Did it last? Well, in 1934, I had a job and I managed after much difficulty to get two weeks’ leave so that I could go back to attend the last two weeks of the now-full-fledged Summer School for Office Workers.

So, from my own experience, I say, for a mental stimulus with a powerful drive, try the Summer School for Office Workers.

Frances E. Scott, n.d.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

It is almost five years since I first attended the Summer Institute for Office Workers and its influence is still a major factor in my life. . . . It was something that happened inside me as the result of the stimulating experiences of learning and thinking with the group of office workers at the Summer School.

In the first place it gave me an abiding interest in life outside myself—an interest that seems to grow more interesting and more challenging each year—an interest in trying to help to get a more abundant life for a larger number of people. By “more abundant” I do not mean merely material abundance, such as better living conditions and more security (although that’s part of it) but also more opportunity for education and chances to know the cultural and beautiful sides of life. It is hard to think of justice on an empty stomach, and hard for the victim of injustices to think of peace and love and beauty. So it’s an ever-engrossing problem to try to make the cycle of life read more food, more justice, more peace, more love, and more beauty, instead of no food, no justice, no peace, no love, and no beauty. It is this interest that has lifted me out of myself and has shown me opportunities of doing things that I never saw before attending the Summer School.

Another important outcome of attending the school is the evergrowing circle of interesting people whom I could not have met were it not for contacts made at the Summer School—vital and interesting people doing exciting things in the labor movement and in the fields of education and social work. Some of these persons are acquaintances, and it is a privilege to meet them and hear their views; and others are friends, people who are interesting to know. These friendships are sincere and lasting because of the bond of a common interest in a common cause. And it is all possible because I was lucky enough to get to go to the Summer School for Office Workers.

—Marian V. Carrol, n.d.

We Take Our Stand

SCENE 1: The office of the Gormon Corporation. There are four girls at desks—two typists and two bookkeepers. Clara gets up and goes to Rose’s desk. She whispers to her and then turns to the other girls:

Clara: Did you notice that the machinery isn’t running?

Jane: Yes. It’s awfully quiet in there. Has something gone wrong?

Clara: No. Not with the machinery.

Ruth: Something is wrong with the pay everyone here gets and the hours we all work.

Clara: That’s why the place is so still. The shop workers are having a meeting.

Ruth: I think we ought to be in on it.

Mary: What for? They’ll get into trouble for stopping in the middle of the day.

Ruth: Well, we ought to stop too.

Mary: And lose our jobs?

Clara: Mary, you don’t understand. The factory workers are talking about a strike for better wages and shorter hours.

Mary: I wouldn’t mind a raise. But I need my job.

Ruth: So do we all.

Clara: Let’s face the facts. When and if the shop workers go on strike, what are we going to do?

Ruth: We’ve got the same reasons for striking that they have. $15 a week for a bookkeeper is no pay. It’s a bribe.

Clara: And $12 a week for a typist isn’t enough for room and board.

Jane: Don’t forget that Mary and I are only getting $11 a week.

Clara: And I haven’t forgotten all the overtime we’ve worked without even a word of thanks, not to speak of getting paid for it. We’re certainly no better off than the factory workers.

Ruth: And they don’t have to come to work dressed to look like twice their pay like we do.

Mary: But half a loaf is better than none.

Ruth: Let’s not talk so much. What are we going to do?

Mary: I say mind our own business.

Jane: Eleven dollars worth? I’m for striking if the factory workers do.

Ruth: I agree with Jane.

Mary: I’ll stick with you. But I still don’t see why we should support the factory workers. We want better pay, but they couldn’t help us. Why should we help them?

Clara: If we help them win their demands, they’ll help us win ours.

Jane: You think you’re different, Mary, because you’ve got a desk of your own to work on. But you and I get a dollar less than the factory girls. (As she talks, Hannah, Grace and Mac enter, wearing aprons/smocks.)

Clara: What’s up, Hannah?

Hannah: We’ve decided to go on strike unless Mr. Williams signs the agreement right now.

Grace: And we want you to come out with us.

Hannah: In fact, if you girls say you’re ready to strike, the boss may give in without a strike.

Clara: We’re all with you.

(The boss enters as she finishes.)

Williams: Why aren’t you working? You’ve still got an hour before lunch. (To Hannah:) What are you doing here in the office?

Hannah: Mr. Williams, unless you sign the agreement today and grant us union wages, an eight hour day, and union recognition, we’re all going on strike.

Williams: Who’s we?

Hannah: All the factory and all your office workers.

Williams: What have the office workers got to do with it?

Clara: We all know the factory workers deserve better conditions.

Williams: (to factory workers) Bring the agreement into my office. We’ll talk it over. (He exits.)

Ruth: I think he gave in.

Clara: I think so too.

Mary: He was pretty angry at us. I wonder what he’ll do?

Clara: Here they come. (Hannah, Grace and Mac rush in, waving agreement.)

Hannah: Thanks to you girls, we’ve won. Wait til the shop hears this. (They exit.)

Williams: I’m surprised at you girls.

Clara: Why Mr. Williams?

Williams: I thought at least my office staff was loyal to the firm.

Clara: But we didn’t do anything against the firm. Those factory workers deserve decent wages and they’ll do better work if they get them.

Williams: I don’t care what they do. Most of them can be replaced in five minutes if I wanted. But you girls. You’ve worked here a long time. I feel almost like a father to you. And then, whose side do you take? Aren’t you satisfied here?

Jane: We certainly could stand a raise in pay.

Williams: I’ll consider it. But you’ll have to prove that you’re loyal to the firm. All right, Jane, type this up. “We the undersigned hereby agree never to join a union or participate in any strike against the Gormon Corporation.” Now I want everyone to sign that.

Jane: That’s not fair.

Clara: It’s not legal to make us sign that.

Williams: Then you’re not loyal to the firm. I’ll fire all of you if you don’t sign that pledge.

Clara: We won’t sign.

Williams: (shouting) Your signatures or your jobs.

Mary: But, Mr. Williams . . .

Clara: Come on, girls. . . . We’ll be back when you’re ready to sign a union agreement. (They exit as Williams crumples up typed pledge. Blackout.)

SCENE 2: A picket line. The four office workers are picketing up and down and humming “On the Line.” Suddenly, Hannah, Grace, Mac and a group of factory workers rush out. The office girls greet them and there is general excitement.

Clara: What happened?

Grace: We couldn’t stand it any longer.

Clara: But what about your agreement?

Hannah: He was breaking it right and left. Anyhow, what did you expect us to do? Scab? (They all hug and shake hands. One of the girls starts the rest in singing—to the tune of “The Old Gray Mare.”)

Mr. Williams ain’t what he used to be

ain’t what he used to be

ain’t what he used to be

Since the union came.

Hannah: (picketing with Clara) You know, Clara, this is the first time the factory workers have supported the office workers on strike.

Clara: And I think it’s only the beginning. (Blackout)

SCENE 3: The entire group of strikers is sitting and talking among themselves.

Hannah: Are we ready to start the meeting? All right, Mac, what did you want to say?

Mac: If it weren’t for the office workers, we wouldn’t be out on strike now. The boss told us tool and die makers today that he’s willing to take us back right now but we’ve got to forget about the office workers.

Grace: Is that so? Don’t forget that this is a joint strike. You had no right to see the boss without the rest of us. But we’re not going back until all of us are ready.

Ruth: And we won’t be ready until we win.

Mac: Well, then you’re going to keep it up without us. Why should we suffer because the office workers are on strike?

Mary: And on whose account were the office workers locked out?

Mac: Well, are you going back or do we go alone?

Hannah: The office workers have been out for sixteen weeks; we’ve been out for twelve. We’ve stuck together because we know this strike belongs to all of us. We’re not going to give in now.

Mac: Then you refuse to go back?

Hannah: It’s up to the strikers. All those in favor of going back without the office workers. (Mac says “aye”) Mac, do you know what this means?

Mac: It means we go back without you.

Clara: We’ll win our strike without them.

Hannah: Those tool and die workers would be all right. But they’ve got the same idea you office workers used you have. They think they’re better than the rest of us.

Clara: If we were all in one union, they would have to stick with us.

Grace: It won’t be long before they understand. Now they don’t consider us because we are unskilled workers. But if the office workers learned better, they will too. (laughter) How about a song before we go back to the picket line. (Strikers sing “Solidarity” starting to leave as they finish the song. Blackout.)

SCENE 4: The picket line. Strikers are picketing and singing “Please, Mr. Boss.” They sing the song twice and then start to hum as Clara steps off the picket line and says to the audience:

Clara: When workers, whether they are office or factory workers, go out on strike, they need not only their own solidarity but that of the labor movement, and the aid of all those who think they have a right to decent conditions. Come on up and join our line. Help us sing; help us picket; and help us win.

Audience follows directions and join the picket line on the stage, until the entire group—actors and audience—move on out of the theater/hall together.


1. “The Summer Institute for Office Workers, Oberlin College. July 15–29, 1933,” American Labor Education Service Collection, Industrial and Labor Relations Archives, Cornell University (hereafter cited as ALES), SSOW Miscellaneous 1933, Box 91.

2. Orlie Pell, “Summer School for Office Workers,” School and Society 65 (June 28, 1947): 477.

3. For this development, see Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), and Michael Crozier, The World of the Office Worker (New York: Schocken, 1973), p. 1. For statistical data, see Alba Edwards, Comparative Occupational Statistics for the United States: 1870–1940, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943) and Janet Hooks, Women’s Occupations through Seven Decades, Women’s Bureau Bulletin no. 218 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1947), pp. 74–77.

4. The outlines of this debate are sketched in C. Wright Mills, White-Collar: The American Middle Classes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), esp. chaps. 9 and 14; Emil Lederer, The Problem of the Modern Salaried Employee (New York: N.Y. State Department of Social Welfare, 1937); and Lewis Corey, The Crisis of the Middle Class (New York: Covici, Friede, 1935), chaps 6 and 11.

5. Coit to Douglas, January 3, 1930; SSOW Correspondence 1929–30, ALES, Box 91.

6. Elinor Pancoast, “Summer School for Office Workers,” American Federationist 43 (October 1936): 1052.

7. Theresa Wolfson, “Should White-Collar Workers Organize?” Independent Women 15 (November 1936): 356.

8. Pancoast, p. 1053.

9. Coit to Douglas, April 16, 1930, SSOW Correspondence 1929–30; and Coit to Doris Madow, January 24, 1931, Office Workers Summer School, Correspondence 1931 (both in ALES, Box 91). Also see Minutes of the Committee, November 4, 1929, SSOW Minute Book, ALES, Box 91.

10. Miss Pell’s Class, 1939, p. 2, SSOW Class Notes 1939, ALES, Box 95. The writer went on to say, “In a company where I worked once, the stenographers and clerks would not have anything to do with the factory girls, because they considered themselves much better in spite of the fact that they were making $14.00 a week to the factory girls’ $28.00.”

11. Ziegler to Shoemaker, April 1, 1930, SSOW Correspondence 1929–30, ALES, Box 91.

12. Typescript, November 12, 1930, Memos on Meeting of Committee to form SSOW 1930–31, ALES, Box 91.

13. Coit to Ziegler, July 16, 1930, SSOW Correspondence 1929–30, ALES, Box 91.

14. Quoting Grace Coyle in typescript, November 12, 1930.

15. Coit to Cummings, July 15, 1930, Office Workers Correspondence 1931, ALES, Box 91.

16. “The Summer Institute for Office Workers, Oberlin College,” and “Memorandum on the SSOW: a New Experiment in Adult Education,” SSOW Plans etc. to 1933, ALES, Box 91.

17. See the Director’s Reports of the Summer School for Office Workers (1934, 1935, and 1936), passim. See also the various articles published about the school by its faculty, including Pancoast (n. 6 above); Clara Kaiser, “The Office Worker,” Social Work Today 5 (May 1938): 20–21; and Orlie Pell, “A Workers School for the Office Worker,” American Federationist 42 (June 1935): 622–24.

18. Minutes of the First Meeting of the Continuation Committee, Continuation Committee file, ALES, Box 91.

19. Marion V. Carroll to Frank Morrison, November 17, 1933, Continuation Committee file, ALES, Box 91.

20. Minutes of the Third Meeting of the Admissions Committee of the SSOW, June 5, 1934, p. 3, ALES, Box 91.

21. Minutes of a Meeting of the Office Workers Summer School Committee, May 11, 1934, SSOW Correspondence NYC, ALES, Box 91.

22. Klebe to Green, October 30, 1934, Henrietta Klebe file, ALES, Box 92.

23. Questionnaire of Doris Pieper, August 15, 1935; Pieper to Jean Carter, August 7, 1935 (both from Doris Pieper file, ALES, Box 92).

24. Minutes of the Meeting of the SSOW Committee, December 31, 1935. Also see Kaiser, p. 21.

25. Coit to Cummings, June 26, 1933, and July 5, 1933; Minutes, June 5, 1934 (both in SSOW Correspondence NYC to July 31, 1933, ALES, Box 91).

26. For a discussion of this point see Sharon Hartman Strom, “Challenging ‘Woman’s Place’: Feminism, the Left, and Industrial Unionism in the 1930’s,” Feminist Studies 9 (Summer, 1983), pp. 359–86; and Robert Shaffer, “Woman and the Communist Party, USA, 1930–1940,” Socialist Review 45 (May–June 1979), pp. 73–118.

27. Ethel Gordon to Klebe, August, 1934, Henrietta Klebe file, ALES, Box 92.

28. Velma Noyes to Pell, October 15, 1936, Noyes file, ALES, Box 92.

29. Pell to Noyes, July 1, 1936, Noyes file, ALES, Box 92. Also see Minutes of the Meeting of the SSOW Committee, December 31, 1935, ALES, Box 91.

30. Minutes of the Meeting of the SSOW Committee, December 31, 1935, and December 31, 1936 (both from ALES), Box 91.

31. Kaiser, p. 21.

32. Eleanor Coit, “Office Workers’ School,” Journal of Adult Education 7 (October 1936): 504; and Conference on Chicago White-Collar at SSOW, August 1936, ALES, Box 95.

33. Summaries of Discussion at SS for Workers Conference, Evanston, August 14, 1937, p. 1, Conference, Chicago White-Collar at SSOW file, 1937, ALES, Box 95.

34. SSOW, Report of Director, 1937, p. 5; see also Report, 1939, p. 7, for increasing dependence on trade union support.

35. Theresa Wolfson, “March of Time,” p. 5, Conference, Chicago White-Collar at SSOW file, 1937, ALES, Box 95.

36. SSOW, Report of the Director, 1937, p. 1, ALES.

37. 1937 Minutes, December 31, 1937, p. 6, SSOW Minute Book, ALES, Box 91.

38. Wolfson, “March of Time,” p. 4, ALES.

39. Lucy Carner, “Memo on Community Relationships Course,” SSOW Classnotes, 1939, ALES, Box 95.

40. Elizabeth Wright to Pell, June 14, 1939, File K, ALES, Box 92.

41. Coit, “Office Workers School,” p. 503; SSOW Report of Director, 1939, p. 7, ALES.

42. Marie Algor to Samuel Collins, September 8, 1943, Philadelphia Weekend School file, 1943, ALES, Box 94.

43. “Representative Character of the Returns,” Elinor Pancoast Report, ALES, Box 96; and Florence Cobb to Coit, December 18, 1941. Correspondence, NYC. to 1944, ALES, Box 91.

44. Appraisal of the SSOW, January 1, 1942, pp. 3–4, Elinor Pancoast Report, ALES, Box 96.

45. Report of Director, January 24, 1942, p. 4, ALES.

46. “Office Workers’ Summer School,” Adult Education Journal 5 (October 1946): 178. See also “Office Workers’ Summer School,” Adult Education Journal 6 (October 1947): 189.

47. “Office Workers Summer School,” Adult Education Journal 6 (October 1947): 189.

48. Lydia B. Toedtli, September 25, 1946, Student Reports 1946–52, Box ALES, 98.

49. Annual Report of the American Labor Education Service, Inc., 1951, p. 5, and 1952, passim.

50. Annual Meeting, Board of Directors, White-Collar Workshops, Feb. 11, 1953, p. 1, ALES, Box 97.

51. The letters and the skit, “We Take Our Stand,” are from the ALES Collection.

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