Work People's College
Work People's College (Finnish: Työväen Opisto) was a radical labor college established in a largely rural area just outside Duluth, Minnesota in 1907 by the Finnish Socialist Federation of the Socialist Party of America. School administrators and faculty were sympathetic to the syndicalist left wing of the Finnish labor movement and the institution came into the orbit of the Industrial Workers of the World during the 1914-1915 factional battle that split the Finnish Federation. The school ceased operation in 1941.
In 2012 the Twin Cities branch of the Industrial Workers of the World relaunched Work People's College on a limited basis as a summer training camp for the group's activists and organizers.
Finnish immigrants to the United States during the first years of the 20th Century tended to the be a literate community, with 97% of those arriving between 1899 ad 1907 knowing how to read and write. Education was a valued part of Finnish immigrant life and the desire for institutions of higher learning in their own language extended across generational and ideological boundaries. As early as 1900 there were discussions about establishing a school that would provide a liberal alternative to Suomi College and Seminary of Hancock, Michigan.
Work People's College was preceded by a "folk" high school of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of America that was founded in Minneapolis in September 1903. The school was launched with a view to teaching the Finnish language and Lutheran religion to its students. Finnish immigrants in this period constituted nearly 40 percent of the population of Northern Minnesota, with a goodly number of these working in the mining and timber industries or on the docks of Duluth, a major port on the southernmost tip of Lake Superior.
The Finnish Lutheran high school moved to Smithville, a rural area just southwest of Duluth, a few months after its establishment. It changed its name to the Finnish People's College and Theological Seminary in January 1904, a name change which reflected the institution's desire to serve both general educational and seminarian needs of the community. Money was raised to fund the school's purchase of a three story building through the sale of shares of stock. A board of directors controlled the operations of the institution, which included both anti-socialist clerics and pro-socialist lay members of the church. In an intense economic and political environment, marked by labor strikes and the emergence of the Finnish Socialist Federation among the immigrant community, these factions vied for control of the school.
The students of the Finnish People's College and Theological Seminary resisted the school's educational regime, which imposed mandatory prayer while forbidding discussion of social issues. This lead to a strike of the student body in the Fall of 1904, with all but two students walking out of a mandatory prayer meeting in protest. The director of the school, E.W. Saranen, subsequently resigned his post as a result of the students' action.
With enrollment tailing off, the board of directors initially considered closing the school but found financial rescue from the Socialist movement when board member Alex Halonen began to have great success selling stock to locals of the Finnish Socialist Federation. Soon majority control of school stock was in the hands of the Socialist movement, which asserted control over the composition of the board of directors. The direction of the school was made secular, and Socialist influence continued to grow.
By 1907 control of the stock and administrative apparatus of the Finnish People's College was firmly ensconced in Socialist hands. A further shift towards secular labor education followed, complete with a new name for the institution — Työväen Opisto (Workers' College), commonly albeit clumsily rendered into English as Work People's College. K.L. Haataja served as director and instructor.
Leo Laukki assumed leadership in 1908. Enrollment was 8 students during the initial year and peaked during the 1910 academic year at over 100 students.
For a time, members of the Finnish Socialist Federation contributed funds to support the school. Rifts developed, however, and by 1921 Work People's College was closely identified with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Work People's College was a resident labor college, housing its students on-site. Other similar schools included Brookwood Labor College at Katonah, New York and Commonwealth College of Mena, Arkansas.
There were roughly 30 students during the final year of operation in 1940-41.
One building of the former Work People's College still stands at 402 S. 88th Ave. West in Duluth and houses eleven apartments.
Beginning in the summer of 2012, the Twin Cities General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World in partnership with IWWs from around the country restarted the Work People's College, hosting a 5 day retreat bringing together nearly 100 rank and file organizers from around North America.
Notable faculty and alumni
- Peter Kivisto, Immigrant Socialists in the United States: The Case of Finns and the Left. Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984; pg. 107.
- Richard J. Altenbaugh, Education for Struggle: The American Labor Colleges of the 1920s and 1930s. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990; pg. 63.
- Altenbaugh, Education for Struggle, pg. 60.
- Altenbaugh, Education for Struggle, pg. 61.
- Altenbaugh, Education for Struggle, pg. 64.
- E.E. Cummins, "Workers' Education in the United States," Social Forces, vol. 14, no. 4 (May 1936), pg. 598.
- Richard J. Altenbaugh, Education for Struggle: The American Labor Colleges of the 1920s and 1930s. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990.
- Richard J. Altenbaugh, "Workers' Education as Counter Hegemony: The Educational Process at Work People's College, 1907-1941," Syracuse University.
- E.E. Cummins, "Workers' Education in the United States," Social Forces, vol. 14, no. 4 (May 1936), pp. 597-605. In JSTOR
- Gary Kaunonen, Challenge Accepted: A Finnish Immigrant Response to Industrial America in Michigan's Copper Country. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2010.
- Peter Kivisto, Immigrant Socialists in the United States: The Case of Finns and the Left. Rutherford, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1984.
- Auvo Kostiainen, "Work People's College: An American Immigrant Institution," Scandinavian Journal of History, vol. 5, issue 1-4 (1980), pp. 295-309.
- Douglas Ollila, Jr., The Emergence of Radical Industrial Unionism in the Finnish Socialist Movement. Turku, Finland: Institute of General History Publication, 1975.
- Douglas Ollila, Jr., "From Socialism to Industrial Unionism (IWW): Social Factors in the Emergence of Left-labor Radicalism Among Finnish Workers on the Mesabi, 1911-19," in Michael Karni, et. al. (eds.), The Finnish Experience in the Western Great Lakes Region: New Perspectives. Turku, Finland: Institute for Migration, 1975.
- Douglas Ollila, Jr., A Time of Glory: Finnish-American Radical Industrial Unionism, 1914-1917. Turku, Finland: Institute of History Publication, 1977.
- Douglas Ollila, Jr., "The Work People's College: Immigrant Education for Adjustment and Solidarity," in Michael Karni and Douglas Ollila (eds.), For the Common Good. Superior, WI: Työmies Society, 1977.