‘The Work People’s College’ by Kristen Svanum from Industrial Pioneer. Vol. 2 No. 10. February, 1925.

‘Work People’s College at 402 South Eighty-eighth Avenue West in the Smithville Riverside neighborhood, Duluth.’

What began as a center for the Finnish Socialist Federation of Duluth in 1907, Työväen Opisto, quickly grew as a dollar of dues a year for each member of the Federation nationally was invested into the school. In the 1915 split in the Federation, the school went with the syndicalists. Further changes in that wing led to the Industrial Workers of the World taking leadership of the college in the 1920s. Running until 1941, the school was among the most important institutions of the radical U.S. working class in our history with a great number of important activists attending as students or as educators. Here, Kristen Svanum of the I.W.W. explains the college and its functioning, life on campus, the curriculum, and invites workers to join the Class of 1926.

‘The Work People’s College; by Kristen Svanum from Industrial Pioneer. Vol. 2 No. 10. February, 1925.


IF you followed the advice “mail that coupon to-day” for some time ago;— if you are sitting up nights cudgeling your brains over mail-order courses teaching how to become a “big executive”, if you are lying awake nights building air castles on that foundation and muttering in your sleep: “Here is another fifty dollars, Grace, I am making real money now” — In short, if you think that your main chance in life consists in making an attempt to rise out of your class, this article is not very likely to interest you.

If, on the other hand, you have arrived at the conclusion that individual attempts by you to improve your economic conditions have only an infinitesimal chance for success, and that the only sure way of improving your conditions is through organized effort together with other members of your class, an article on The Work People’s College cannot fail to interest you.

Class of 1914.

As most readers of the Industrial Pioneer have arrived at the second conclusion, there is no need of proving the correctness of it here.

The Work People’s College is no technical institution. It does not turn out stenographers, bookkeepers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, mechanics, or any other professionals or tradesmen. Its purpose is to give its students knowledge of the structure, aims, methods and philosophy of the I.W.W. and make them able to become more powerful factors in the class struggle.

The majority of the students are members of the I.W.W. and nobody comes there for any other purpose than that mentioned above. The classes are arranged for the purpose and can roughly be divided into three groups: social sciences, organization work and elementary subjects.

Work Peoples College, students scattering Joe Hill’s ashes of the school’s porch, 1917.

Under the heading of social sciences come economics, sociology, and history of the United States. The importance of a clear understanding and knowledge of these three subjects can hardly be overestimated from the organization point of view.

Curriculum Can’t Be Beaten

When you are trying to convince a worker that the I.W.W. is the only organization that has got a practical program worth while, it is not enough to answer his objections by telling him that he is wrong. Such a procedure will usually only irritate him and make him determined not to be convinced, and in that way make it much harder for you.

1939 Workers Youth Summer School.

If you do not know anything about economics, it very difficult for you to answer even such old and exploded objections as: “What is the use of organizing? If we get higher wages they — the capitalists — will only raise the prices and we shall be no better off”. Or, “The high wages caused high prices, that is the reason why we have got a panic now. The only way to get better times is by getting prices down to normal again, and that can’t be done without cutting wages”. If you are well grounded in Marxian economics, such objections are only grist to your mill. If you are not, chances are that either you or the worker you are trying to convince will lose patience.

Besides freeing you from disadvantages of that kind, to judge intelligently on any industrial problem, it is necessary to have more than a superficial knowledge of the material basis of society, and the only way of acquiring that is through the study of economics.

‘The library has a good set of reference books, and an excellent selection of volumes of interest to class conscious workers. But more can always be used. Gifts to the library are acknowledged in I.W.W. papers. 1925.

The average worker has got a vague idea that human institutions have changed, but he often believes that they are no longer subject to such change. A study of sociology will pretty soon explode such beliefs. After having traced the changes of society from primitive communism, through chattel slavery and serfdom, to wage slavery, it is rather easy to see that forces are existing today that are going to do away with wage slavery, and to see that these forces are economic and can only be given full play when united in an economic organization — in a union of the working class.

The course in history of the United States is giving special application to the principles arrived at in sociology. At the end of the course the origin of the I.W.W. is described, showing how it grew out of American conditions, and how it has become the natural fighting organization of the American working class.

IN THE KITCHEN. This room and the dining hall can accommodate 200 students. Boiler and cook house are under the kitchen. There is a “homey” atmosphere throughout the college, and the rooms are steam heated, assuring comfort to students. 1925.

Under the heading of organization work, three classes are conducted: organization bookkeeping, organization work proper, and industrial survey.

The course in organization bookkeeping covers the field from filling out a job delegate report to keeping the books in the general office; explaining such things as duties of auditing committees, preparing financial statements, etc.

In organization work proper the functions of job delegates, traveling delegates, G.O.C. members and secretaries are described. Parliamentary procedure is taught with special reference to I.W.W. customs and rules at job meetings, branch meetings, committee meetings, conventions, conferences, etc. In the same class the I.W.W. preamble and constitution are analyzed, and many organization and administration problems are examined.

Spirit Lake is frozen solid and our fellow worker students are making the most of it. While the college exists first to develop brain power, its gymnasium and outdoor sports keep the students “fit.” 1925.

The course in industrial survey is teaching the students how to use statistical handbooks, tables, etc., to compare results gained through them with their own and their fellow worker’s observations on the job, and in that way produce a clear picture of general conditions prevailing in the industry in question.

The elementary subjects cover English and mathematics and are like most other subjects graded, so that the students can study in groups where all have approximately the same knowledge of the subject and the same capacity for studying it.

The advanced grades in the English classes are studying public speaking and labor journalism, not for the purpose of developing into professional soap-boxers and writers, but so that they will be able to give an intelligent account of their ideas, whether it be on the platform or in print.


Costs and Accommodations

The students are living in the college that can house 65 of them. At the present every room is filled; but as arrangements have been made to furnish rooms in the neighboring houses the college is able to accommodate 200 students. The charge is in either case $39.00 a month for tuition, room and board.

In addition to the regular classes two open forums are conducted every week, where subjects of interest to the labor movement in general and the I.W.W. in particular are discussed. One of the students starts the discussion with an opening speech limited to 40 minutes. After he has answered questions from the audience for 30 minutes, the floor is thrown open for discussion for another 30 minutes, and the speaker has 20 minutes for rebuttal.


Saturday and Sunday there are no classes; these days give the student an opportunity to rest up or, if he so prefers, to study in his room. Every Friday night there is a business meeting where the affairs of the college are decided.

Friday night there is a dance in the college. Besides that, the students have this year already had two entertainments, both of them very successful. The students do not need to go outside the college for recreation or to have any big expenditures for that purpose.

There are a gymnasium and shower baths in the college, and all the implements that are supposed to be connected with a gymnasium. The college is located at Spirit Lake. If you want to go skating, a couple of minutes’ walk will bring you to the skating rink. In that way the students are able to take care of their health with a minimum expenditure of time and energy. It goes without saying that where 70 Wobblies are together the time is passing fast, too fast.

The term starts November 15 and ends April 15. Most of the students arrive and depart on these two dates. Only a few who have to leave — on account of financial circumstances — do not stay the full term. The seven months between April and November enable many of the students to raise the necessary winter stake and to return term after term and in that way gain a solid and systematic education.

Students Make Better I.W.W.’s.

The value of the college to the I.W.W. can hardly be exaggerated. Every student is, after he leaves the college, much better equipped to do “his bit” in the class struggle, than he was before. Quite a few of the students went, when they left the college, right to California. One of them, John Bruns, is in St. Quentin now and will, like all of the class war prisoners, be glad to receive letters from his fellow workers on the outside.

Many other students have made a good record after leaving college. Some as G.O.C. members, others as traveling delegates, and nearly all the rest of them as job delegates. And all of them agree that their studies at the college have been a great advantage for them in the organization work and educational activities that they have helped to carry on.

At the rate the attendance is increasing it will soon be necessary to increase the number of teachers. For that reason the college intends to conduct special classes for teachers next term, besides a special summer course for teachers either this year or next year. The college will then be able to turn out its own force of instructors, and whenever a college would be opened up in another locality, it would have at its disposition instructors especially trained for that kind of work.

Student apartments today.

Members of the I.W.W. should bear in mind that whatever their previous education is, there will always be courses adapted for them at the college, from the most elementary school subjects to the most advanced studies in economics and sociology. Make up your mind now to attend college next year, and you will easily have the necessary funds— $200.00— by November 15. If you do so, you will not regret it.

The Industrial Pioneer was published monthly by Industrial Workers of the World’s General Executive Board in Chicago from 1921 to 1926 taking over from One Big Union Monthly when its editor, John Sandgren, was replaced for his anti-Communism, alienating the non-Communist majority of IWW. The Industrial Pioneer declined after the 1924 split in the IWW, in part over centralization and adherence to the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) and ceased in 1926.

PDF of full issue (large composite file): https://archive.org/download/case_hd_8055_i4_r67_box_007/case_hd_8055_i4_r67_box_007.pdf

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