Apprenticeship for labor leaders

College: Organizers and negotiators of the future study in Silver Spring for diplomas to go with their union cards.

January 19, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

SILVER SPRING -- Just 100 yards outside the Capital Beltway, they train Joe College to be Joe Hill.

Students at the National Labor College learn about union organizing, from the work of Hill, whose 1915 execution inspired a legendary song, to the 55-year career of George Meany.

The college is the only school in the United States to offer bachelor's degrees exclusively in labor studies. Its first class, numbering 100, will graduate in July.

"To be a responsible labor leader, the seat of your pants isn't enough anymore," says college President Susan Schurman, a hard-charging former bus driver and union organizer with a doctorate in education.

Meany understood the need for a place to groom the next generation of labor leaders from the rank and file. In 1972, he purchased the 47-acre Xavierian seminary off New Hampshire Avenue and opened the campus two years later.

For the first two decades, bachelor's degrees from the George Meany Center for Labor Studies were issued through Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

But in 1996, the center's board of trustees decided it wanted local control and accreditation. The state granted accreditation in 1997, and the National Labor College became a separate entity from the center.

"It shows a commitment by the AFL-CIO to workers and to the health of the labor movement," explains Nancy Gentile, acting college provost.

Most of the 320 students working toward a degree are, to put it politely, not having their first experience away from home.

They are tradesmen and police officers and former full-time mothers who have an education itch that needs to be scratched. They juggle other commitments and chip away at the degree requirements a course or three at a time.

There's Brenda Cantrell of Columbia, who is studying how best to teach employees about health and safety issues.

"I always wanted to go to school, but I was scared to death. I'd sign up, but with little kids, I never followed through," says Cantrell, scheduled to graduate in July.

And there's Alexander Bell, 77, a retired plumber who taught his trade to hundreds of apprentices in his first career and wants a second career teaching labor studies.

"I've been going to school just about my whole life," he says. "I hope my international will see fit to use me somewhere."

The Class of '99 includes several Anne Arundel County police sergeants who want a degree to improve their chances for promotion and the know-how to negotiate a better contract.

"It's demanding," says Sgt. Stephen Torbeck, a Carroll County resident. "People I've talked to think this is a mail-order college. Then I show them my term papers and my syllabus, and they change their tune."

Students transfer credits from a community or junior college and can pick up additional credit for union or work experience.

The future union representatives take courses in leadership, bargaining, communications and contract writing, says instructor Valerie Ervin.

"It's no longer good enough to teach just organizing," she says. "You have to teach economics."

While the college offers degrees, the George Meany Center for Labor Studies operates one-week programs on the nuts and bolts of union activity.

"At a university you know that somewhere down the road -- maybe 20 years -- what they are learning will be used. Because our people are adults, because many of them are prominent in their communities, they can immediately put into practice what they learn here," says Schurman, who also oversees the labor center.

Pub Date: 1/19/99

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