From Laborer to Labor Leader
An electrician is electrified by what he learns at a Maryland college
By Eugene L. Meyer
Sunday, June 13, 2004; Page W23
Rob Raesch hadn't seen the inside of a college classroom for 25 years. The 54-year-old electrician felt "very, very intimidated" as he prepared to spend a week at the National Labor College in suburban Maryland. He signed up for two courses: reading and writing critically, and employment rights. It was the latter that both excited him and scared him to death, he said.
Two days earlier, he had seriously considered dropping employment rights, but in a half-hour phone conversation, the instructor dissuaded him. "I have no concept about the law," Raesch had protested. The other students did. They were union officers and staff members. For them, employment rights were not simply an academic matter.
But they weren't for Raesch, either. A member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, he'd had lots of real-life, on-the-job experience. Instructor Carol Oppenheimer urged him to think about that, to find "an issue close to you on a project you've been on" and present it to the class as a case study. Working on commercial sites in the Washington area, he'd been exposed to all kinds of serious employment rights issues. Encouraged, he agreed to stick it out.
During the coming week, Raesch and his classmates would be exploring all kinds of workplace concerns. A previous class, for instance, had focused on how some municipal bus drivers in California were effectively denied bathroom breaks and had to resort to wearing diapers.
Cases like that shock and outrage, but, more to the point, they may violate state or federal laws and regulations. The students' task would be to devise strategies -- legal action, public campaigns, legislative lobbying -- to address the wrongs outlined by their classmates. Moreover, they would be expected, upon returning to work, to use what they had learned in class to address the problem. The class wasn't just a scholarly exercise.
But then, the school Raesch had chosen to attend is far from being an ivory tower. It is a one-of-a-kind college for adults from all over the country who work full time, either for unions or as practitioners of a trade. They study for degrees in labor studies, labor education, labor health and safety, and union leadership and administration. The course work is done mostly online, except for one or two mandatory, intensive, six-day "degree weeks" at the National Labor College's White Oak campus. Most of the 97 students (73 men and 24 women) who descended on the college during a frigid week in January were in their forties and fifties; seven students were 60-plus. They represented 31 unions, with the largest group being painters, followed by electricians and then plumbers.
Unlike most of his classmates, who would be staying in the college's dormitories, Raesch, who lives in Northern Virginia, would drive to classes each day. Also atypically, he was not a union official whose education was being subsidized by his local. He was a rank-and-file member paying his own way, at $390 a course, plus expenses. While his classmates wanted to increase their knowledge to better serve their members or to advance their careers in the labor movement, Raesch simply wanted to find a place for himself in their world. After 30 years of physically taxing, often repetitive work as an electrician, he wanted to work not as labor but for labor, tracking legislation or doing other more intellectually challenging work.
"I'm your basic electrician trying to make a change," said Raesch, a Richard Gere look-alike with aquiline features and wavy silver hair. He saw the National Labor College as his best shot -- and perhaps his last -- at a college degree and a whole new career.
THE NATIONAL LABOR COLLEGE occupies a surprisingly tranquil, 47-acre former seminary hard by the Capital Beltway in Silver Spring. Where Xaverian Brothers once prayed, union brothers and sisters now hold sway. The gospel imparted here is more than a matter of faith. The school's secular texts and curriculum offer practical lessons of survival in an increasingly competitive global economy -- in a time when unions, and workers in general, seem to be swimming against a tide of outsourcing, offshoring, downsizing and plant closings. In this climate, union membership has declined sharply, from a peak of 35 percent of the workforce in 1955 to 12.9 percent today.
"The No. 1 goal," said Susan Schurman, a former union bartender and bus driver who received doctorates from the University of Michigan and Rutgers University before becoming president of the National Labor College, "is to turn around the decline in union membership."
The grown-ups who come to study here are not interested in abstract protest, in World Trade Organization-type demonstrations. Entering as upper-level undergraduates, they come to learn how to fight more effectively for labor, how to organize, how to lobby, how to litigate for employment rights -- and to get a college degree that, in the crush of work and family, long may have seemed out of reach. Many arrive with minimal higher education but ample life experience that they can convert to credits that count toward their degrees.
Before they graduate, they must complete a senior research project. Recent students have focused on a largely forgotten but highly successful union drive in Reno, Nev., in 1902, and on post-traumatic stress syndrome among employees of the New York City Housing Authority who had a close-up view of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center.
The George Meany Center for Labor Studies-National Labor College was the dream of its namesake, the gruff Bronx plumber who went on to become the U.S. labor movement's leading icon. The college also holds union workshops and meetings year-round. The AFL-CIO pumped $5 million into the college this year, nearly half of the school's budget, and AFL-CIO President John F. Sweeny chairs the college's board of trustees. Since 1997, the college has been licensed by the state of Maryland to grant degrees on its own, and this spring it achieved another milestone: accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.
In its five years of formal existence, the college has granted more than 500 degrees, and with construction of a new dormitory and conference center, the number matriculating is expected to accelerate.
ROB RAESCH HOPES to graduate from the college in June 2005. The child of Hungarian and Italian immigrants grew up on Long Island, started college, dropped out and joined the Air Force, where he learned the electrician's trade. He then married, attended a community college, receiving an associate's degree, and worked at his trade in Newburgh, N.Y. He divorced and spent the 1990s in Puerto Rico, working as a bartender and self-employed electrician. When he returned to the mainland four years ago, he surfed the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Web site and learned that the Washington area's Local 26 had an abundance of work. He moved here in November 2000.
Raesch and his wife, Patricia, who works as a legislative analyst at IBEW headquarters in downtown Washington, live in a 63-year-old colonial in Falls Church. Normally, it would be a simple drive around the Beltway to attend classes at the National Labor College. But this past winter, it was not, with harsh weather shutting down area governments, schools and universities -- but not the college, where attendance was mandatory, no matter what.
Raesch registered on a Saturday and attended his first classes on Sunday. He decided to forgo the welcome dinner that night and go home, but, faced with forecasts of severe weather, drove back to campus, where he had not reserved a room in the dorms. Instead, he alternated between working in the computer lab and trying to sleep on a couch in the adjacent lounge. Unwashed and exhausted, he arrived at his employment rights class at 8 a.m.
Fourteen students sat around the room with instructors Morty Simon and Carol Oppenheimer, a husband-and-wife labor law team based in Santa Fe, N.M. Employment rights is a subject fraught with land mines. Students are encouraged to share real-life situations, some of them worthy of Upton Sinclair. "Stuff comes out, creating an incredible sense of solidarity," Oppenheimer said. Ultimately, each student must present an "advocacy statement," which may relate to his or her situation or a problem on which the class has chosen to focus.
Mostly, the students in Raesch's class weren't shy in revealing the specifics. But the project the students decided to focus on as a class raised serious liability and confidentiality issues, so The Washington Post Magazine agreed not to disclose certain details of the case.
It revolved around a complaint about safety conditions at a job site where union workers and nonunion employees, mostly immigrants, worked side by side to upgrade a sanitation plant. The nonunion workers were not well trained in safety procedures, and one died in a fall. Untreated sludge overflowed the tanks onto the sidewalks and roads. Workers often walked through it. Some even climbed down into the tanks to repair broken pipes or chains, emerging with their clothes coated in human feces. They ate lunch in this condition, and they wore their work clothes home. The union workers received hepatitis shots; the nonunion workers did not. No one complained about any of this, and no one inspected the conditions. An upgrade of the sanitation plant went on to win an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which apparently had no idea what the safety conditions were like.
The class was stunned as the details spilled out. Even for hardened union officials, it was tough to hear.
Raesch's other class, reading and writing critically, was far less intense. The students were given 10 minutes to write free-form about whatever came into their minds. Raesch wrote about how tired he was after spending the night on the couch. In another piece of writing, he described the island of Vieques, where he had lived in Puerto Rico. During one session, 10 students joined in deconstructing an essay by George Orwell and a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Horace Greeley. Later, they used symbolic objects to tell a story. The goal of the class was to give students the analytical tools and writing skills they would need to tackle more substantive courses, such as employment rights.
The classroom adjoined the college bookstore and gift shop, where along with the usual mugs and sweatshirts were kids' T-shirts announcing, "I'm a Little Wobbly." It is a play on the nickname for the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical union organization founded in Chicago in 1905. The student union lounge, which features a long bar and a room with several pool tables, is decorated with union pins and bumper stickers. Students go there to relax, drink beer, smoke cigarettes and, on Thursday night of degree week, listen to a disc jockey and sing karaoke. About 10 p.m., three middle-aged union women took the microphone to sing what may be the National Labor College's mantra: "I Will Survive." They dedicated it to their instructors.
WHILE THE KARAOKE was going full tilt, Raesch was working on assignments. He left the campus computer lab at 10 p.m., went home for a few hours of sleep and was back by 6:30 a.m. for more study before his final 8 o'clock employments rights class.
The students were presenting advocacy statements aimed at different audiences. One student assumed the persona of a preacher at a black church to campaign for the rights of California hospital workers, evoking choruses of "amen" from the class. It turns out that, in real life, he's not only a union rep; he's also a youth pastor.
Monica Sloan, a staff member with the American Federation of Teachers whose 19-year-old son was badly scarred from hot grease while working at a chain restaurant, directed her appeal to a local high school PTA, which she hoped would endorse a course in labor rights for teenagers.
Raesch concentrated his presentation on the story about the sanitation plant. His speech to a hypothetical union meeting advocating a more active role in challenging unhealthy and unsafe working conditions drew applause from his classmates. "Very good job, Rob," Oppenheimer said.
The class ended with everyone joining hands and singing "Solidarity Forever," a union anthem. By the third verse, the emotion in the room was palpable.
When the class finished singing, there were hugs all around. Raesch and a few others lingered outside in the cold for a smoke. Raesch collected business cards and promised to keep in touch with his classmates. In just one week, he'd gone from being intimidated by his employment rights class to feeling exhilarated by it. "I wish," he said, "I'd started this 20 years ago."
Eugene L. Meyer, a former Post reporter, is a freelance writer. He lives in Silver Spring.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Rob Raesch hopes the courses will prepare him for a career in union activism
(Photograph by Chris Hartlove)
An article in the June 13 Magazine incorrectly said that Susan Schurman, president of the National Labor College, received a doctorate from Rutgers University. She has one doctorate, from the University of Michigan.