Helena Worthen’s What Did You Learn at Work Today: TheForbidden Lessons of Labor Education offers an effective primer on why workplace democracy is so important today. The focus of the book is on how workers can learn about labor rights and collective action inside and outside of the workplace. Although Worthen uses some education and labor theories, the work is grounded in concrete experiences and complex workplace situations. One of the central points she exposes is that most workers have no idea about their rights until they run into a problem, and then it is often too late.
Worthen has found that when workers from diverse workplaces get together and talk about their experiences on the job, they soon discover that some workers have a lot of say in how their job is done, while others have little if any say. Worthen makes a strong claim that all workers should have the opportunity to improve their jobs and their workplaces through active participation and shared learning, but this is not the norm in the current employment system, especially in the growing service sector. As more public service jobs are privatized and de-unionized, workers have less job security, lower pay, and a reduced level of control over their own work.
While Worthen shows why unionization is a key to increasing workplace democracy, she also discusses many ways workers in non-union jobs can fight for more rights. For instance, workers can organize around safety issues even if they do not have a collective bargaining agreement. In example after example, she reveals what happens when the workers on the ground are not consulted about their expert knowledge and how to deal with specific safety issues.
On a fundamental level, this book reveals two major flaws in our society: 1) capitalism often undermines democracy and 2) we do not teach students about the workplace and labor rights. Instead of being prepared for a life of employment, students are often thrown into jobs at an early age and become socialized to accept a non-democratic workplace. As Worthen points out, we think of workplace literacy as a way to retrain workers for a new post-industrial economy and not as a needed education in labor history, laws, and rights; however, labor education, unlike most other modes of traditional education, focuses on collective knowledge and increasing consciousness of the surrounding economic and social systems.
Worthen also documents the long history of American employers fighting labor rights and the ability of workers to organize collectively. Although labor history is often excluded from the school curriculum, workers keep their collective knowledge alive through informal educational methods, and yet workers today are constantly fighting a political system that sides with the employer over the employee.
Workers in the UC system could learn a lot from this book. While half of the UC employees are unionized, the administration is not, and many workers fail to exercise the rights and privileges they already have. Recent decisions about a new payroll system and online education appear to come out of nowhere because most employees do not exercise their right to have their voices heard. In order to counter this lack of workplace democracy, UC-AFT is promoting a new organizing plan called You See Democracy. We hope to make the university a place where all workers have a voice.