Photo Credits: Rachelle Honeycutt/ Sam Schaffer/ Javier Almazan/ Cathy Merkel

Rachelle Honeycutt works at an oil refinery in Washington State. Sam Schaffer is a skilled sheet metal worker from West Virginia. Javier Almazan organizes workers in south Florida and Cathy Merkel is a registrar in Maryland. They’re all union members. And in a few days, all four will be graduates of one of the crown jewels of the labor movement: The National Labor College.

With a 46-acre campus just outside Washington, D.C., the nation’s only labor college is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and grants bachelor’s and master’s degrees. The college evolved from the George Meany Center for Labor Studies, created in 1969, and now partners with the University of Baltimore and George Mason University for its graduate degree programs.

On Saturday, 101 students will receive B.A. degrees and two others will be awarded M.A. degrees, as the Labor College graduates its 11th class in a ceremony on the Silver Spring, Md., campus. U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will give the commencement address.

The Labor College’s mix of on-campus course work and life credit enables full-time workers to complete their higher education and, in many cases, fulfill lifelong dreams: Schaffer, Merkel and Almazan are the first in their families to receive bachelor’s degrees.

Almazan, an organizer with the Machinists union, says he enrolled to reach an education goal he set for himself years ago.

My motivation wasn’t really because of my career. It was more about just making my parents proud and setting a good example for my kids, my children. That’s why I enrolled and pursued it.

Almazan sometimes rose at 4:30 a.m. to work on his assignments before his workday began and, at times, skipped family events to ensure his coursework was completed on time. His parents, migrant farm workers who now have retirement security because of their union pensions, will join him at the graduation ceremonies, as will his six children, one of whom will graduate from the University of Florida within months of her father.

The Labor College enables adults working full-time with families and other commitments to break the barriers they face in pursuing higher education. Merkel, a member of the Office and Professional Employees union, oversees apprentice training programs at the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters union in Maryland. When the union partnered with the Labor College for training programs, Merkel, 48, became inspired to pursue her degree as well. Her curiosity about why more union members don’t take advantage of the Labor College’s resources sparked her final research paper on the importance of college degrees for union apprentice instructors. In interviewing union members and compiling the data from the results of the 1,800 surveys she sent out, Merkel found that time and money were two important factors holding adults back from pursuing their degrees. But there was another factor: fear. Says Merkel:

It’s a sort of a fear of failure. Growing up, I don’t know about them…but we didn’t grow up with money. My best friend went off to college and I went to work and cried my eyes out because I couldn’t go. It just wasn’t an option for me. It was a class thing.

Talking with union members about the Labor College, Merkel says she will hear:

"Oh, Cathy, I can’t do that. You’ve got to get one of those smarter, younger guys to do it."

They’ve been taught all their lives that they’re blue-collar workers and that’s what they do. They fear academics. It can be intimidating. If I say I’m a welder, if I say I’m a plumber, how seriously does the academic world take me?

And that’s what sets the Labor College apart. Says Merkel:

From the minute I walked on the campus, I thought it was a perfect fit for any worker.

A member of the United Steelworkers (USW), Honeycutt is the union’s Safety Department coordinator at the Conoco Phillips plant in Ferndale, Wash., and tailored her final research project at the Labor College to address workplace safety and health issues. She created a database from the past 20 years of the refinery’s morbidity and mortality reports and shared the information with other union members on the USW’s Conoco Phillips Council, which includes workers from plants nationwide. Her research turned up an unexpectedly high number of lower back injuries, which she now seeks to address.

Honeycutt, mother of three college-aged children, says her double major in Safety and Health and Union Leadership and Administration was

so interlinked to everything I do. It taught me how to research stuff, locate stuff, report writing, that of course is way beneficial here, because what I do is write reports.

She credits members of the Fire Fighters with giving her the inspiration for creating a database from job safety reports, a cross-pollination of ideas that occurred because of the time she spent with other union members at the Labor College.

I think the strength of NLC is because you have that diverse group of unions. It was such an eye-opener to me to see how other people do things. I know so many different people from so many different unions.

Schaffer, whose grandfather was part of the famous 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain in West Virginia, spends evenings teaching sheet metal apprentices at the Sheet Metal Workers International Training Institute after working full-time as a sheet metal worker at Aerofab in Dayton, Ohio. He says the structure of the college is "very helpful for somebody that’s been out of school for a long time" and getting the opportunity to attend was "an unbelievable dream."

Like Honeycutt, Shaffer says the opportunity to meet union members from around the country at the Labor College campus was a key part of his experience, including the 25 members of Sheet Metal Worker unions nationwide—the most from any union in this graduating class—who will join Honeycutt in graduating this weekend.

Meeting all the different union people—that was great. There were lots of sheet metal workers in the program. We’d sit at night and talk about how they do things in their local that’s totally different from Huntington [West Virginia].

Now Schaffer, who has worked 22 years in the industry, hopes his B.A. in Labor Education will help advance his career as a trainer. His achievement already has thrilled his family, especially his mother, who passed away in April. Schaffer, who is heart-broken his mother will not see him graduate, consoles himself with the knowledge that she read his final research paper, which described the Blair Mountain battle her father took part in.

She was so proud to have a child who was getting ready to graduate.

Another benefit: Schaffer says his degree also makes it easier to encourage his daughter, Lori, to finish college and his high school son, Matthew, to attend.

Merkel isn’t alone in encouraging union co-workers to enroll. Says Almazan, who already has recruited two new students:

I’m trying to promote and encourage other members of our union that are seeking a degree to go there, that is geared toward our kind of lifestyle that will assist you in attaining a degree.

The Labor College enables working adults to obtain higher education many thought was long out of reach. It provides students with valuable skills they can take back to their workplaces and their unions. It also opens up for them the bigger picture of the U.S. union movement-it’s short-term goals, long-term accomplishments and network of activism.

Honeycutt says the Labor College

gave me a broader sense of union policies and priorities, just introduced you to the bigger picture which never think about-you’ve got your own little world. It gives you deeper appreciation for why we matter. We really do a lot of good. We really do matter.

Adds Merkel:

The Labor College shows you what a sisterhood and brotherhood means.