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The limits of the possible : the theory and practice of worker-centred literacy in the context of global capitalism Evans, Sarah

Abstract

The goal of this study is to outline the limits and possibilities for change that worker-centred literacy offers in the context of global capitalism. To this end, this study examines contemporary Canadian discourses of 'workplace literacy' in the new knowledge-based economy and, in particular, explores how the emerging discourse of 'worker-centred literacy' replicates and resists the current emphasis on learning for work. Generally, 'workplace literacy' refers to adult literacy or basic skills programs that take place in work sites, sometimes on work time and usually with skill-based curricula. 'Worker-centred literacy' refers to certain approaches developed or championed by trade unions for their members in unionized worksites. Union organizations do not all endorse a worker-centred approach. There is currently a range of notions about the goals of literacy programming at work, from the development of a more productive, flexible and responsive workforce, to the personal and/or political empowerment of learners/workers. In this study, the 'talk' about these literacies will be analyzed in order to explicate the conflicting sets of interests and political perspectives they represent and the tensions between their competing theories of knowledge making. The main focus of this study will be an exploration o f worker-centred literacy as an oppositional, counter-hegemonic discourse. First, this study will examine why and how labour literacy activists articulate an agenda for literacy that is oppositional to the dominant discourse, with its focus on learning that is geared towards work, and on the skills deficits of Canadian workers. This study will also examine the tensions inherent within the worker-centred approach itself, and the ways in which this project both reproduces and reforms the dominant discourse. Finally, this study will examine worker-centred literacy and the work of labour literacy activists in relation to the evolving role of the labour movement in contemporary Canadian society. This study will conclude that labour literacy activists posit worker-centred literacy as a catalyst for changing the relationship between unions and their membership, and, thereby, for expanding and modernizing the role of unions in response to the pressures of global capitalism.

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