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Working Class Hero: Cal Labor Center Helps Recharge the Movement

September 4, 2017
by Bill Snyder

Labor Day might seem like a vestige of days when collars were bluer, but a coterie of researchers and educators at UC Berkeley’s Labor Center are using their skills to aid the labor movement as it fights to regain relevance.

When San Francisco-based nonprofit Next 10 wanted to study the impact of environmental legislation on employment in two Southern California counties, it turned to UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education and the Center for Law, Energy and the Environment.

Earlier, Next 10 and the Center had collaborated on a similar report focused on the San Joaquin Valley. The framework developed by the UC Berkeley researchers worked so well, Next 10 decided to extend the study to San Bernardino and Riverside counties, says Next 10 research director Colleen Kredell. “These studies are getting a lot of attention and we think they’ll be used by the legislature as they work on these issues,” she says.

The results of the new study were striking. Far from killing jobs, environmental and climate-change focused polices in the Inland Empire… resulted in a net benefit…

The results of the new study were striking. Far from killing jobs, environmental and climate-change focused polices in the Inland Empire, a region that encompasses Riverside and San Bernardino counties and about 11 percent of California’s population, resulted in a net benefit of $9.1 billion in direct economic activity and 41,000 jobs from 2010 through 2016.

Released in early August, the report is the latest research from the Labor Center, one of four centers and a library clustered under the umbrella of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. The topics of other recent Labor Center reports read like a compendium of hot-button social and economic issues, including three looks at various aspects of Obamacare and the effect its repeal might have on California, an analysis of the gig economy, and a threat to retirement plans affecting some 13 million workers in five states.

Those studies don’t just sit on the hard drives of academics, either. They affect public policy and attract widespread attention. In the first nine months of the year, the Labor Center was mentioned more than 100 times in state and national media accounts.

The Center’s advisory board is replete with representatives of California’s largest unions, including the Teamsters, ILWU, Service Employees, the California Teachers Association, the California Nurses Association, and the Communications Workers of America, along with prominent labor scholars including Berkeley’s Robert Reich and Harley Shaiken.

The composition of the advisory board is no coincidence. “We believe a robust labor movement is crucial to a functioning democracy,” Ken Jacobs, the Center’s director, said in an interview. Jacobs, a long-time human rights worker before joining the university in 2002, says the Center was created in 1964 “to be a bridge from the university to labor and the public.”

Housed off campus on Channing Way, the Center has a staff of 25 and a budget of approximately $3 million, says Jacobs. About two-thirds of the center’s funding is provided by the state, and the rest is derived from foundation grants and paid research, such as the Inland Empire study.

The Trump administration’s policies have spurred research into topics like the effects of repealing Obamacare.

Along with research, the Center holds training programs for labor leaders and activists and offers student internships. Student-focused programs are expanding this year, with the addition of a new staffer.  Anibel Ferus-Comelo will teach labor studies classes and run field-studies classes in which students are embedded with unions and community organizations.

Not surprisingly, the Center was created during the administration of a pro-labor Democratic governor, Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, and attacked under the aegis of a decidedly less sympathetic Republican administration. Arnold Schwarzenegger attempted to eliminate or at least cut the Center’s funding, but the money was restored by the state legislature, Jacobs says.

With Brown’s pro-labor son in office for another few years and a Democratic-controlled legislature in place, funding for the Center is likely secure. And while the Trump administration is anything but friendly, its policies have spurred research into topics like the effects of repealing Obamacare.

“The Center is vital for what labor does today and for the future of unions,” says Shaiken, an authority on labor in the U.S. and Latin America, who serves on the Center’s advisory board. Research on the minimum wage by various parts of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment laid the groundwork for action in California and other states, he says.

“I’m aware of how grim the current moment is for the labor movement,” Shaiken says. “But I’m also aware that unions play a vital role and they are going back to their roots to generate the moral vision and excitement they need to rebuild. If we didn’t have unions, we’d have to invent them.”

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