UC still funds pro-union think tank

AUGUST 16, 2010


Despite well-publicized tuition hikes and other various increases in student fees, the University of California somehow still manages to fund the Miguel Contreras Labor Program, a pro-union think tank with offices at the Los Angeles and Berkeley campuses, known as the Institutes for Labor and Employment. The university’s fiscal year 2010-11 budget includes $1 million each to both campuses. It’s not the $5 million to $6 million the program was getting in state funds three years ago, but in a time when spending cuts are seemingly threatening everything, it’s significant.

Patrick Lenz, University of California’s vice president in charge of budgets, didn’t respond to a request for comment, but UC spokesman Ricardo Vazquez confirmed the recent spending on the two labor think tanks. He also e-mailed some excerpts from the last two UC Regents’ Budgets “to summarize the reasons why UC has funded the two programs.”

“Growing international economic integration, policy changes, transformations in business organization, new technology, and other changes have brought many positive developments, but have also resulted in emerging issues and concerns for communities, researchers, and policy makers,” the 2010-11 budget stated. “The UC labor program engages in research and education that advances knowledge and understanding of these new challenges and opportunities from a variety of perspectives and disciplines, including historical, comparative, and institutional approaches.”

In fact, the “research” the labor programs engage in reads more like labor union advocacy. Here are the titles of recent publications put out by UCLA’s labor center:

  • Miguel Contreras: Legacy of a Labor Leader
  • Women’s Work: Los Angeles Homecare Workers Revitalize the Labor Movement
  • Sweatshop Slaves: Asian Americans in the Garment Industry
  • Voices for Justice: Asian Pacific American Organizers and the New Labor Movement
  • Voices from the Front Lines: Organizing Immigrant Workers in Los Angeles

Because the think tanks are located on UC campuses, their research gets added authenticity when written about in the press. Case in point was a Los Angeles Times article from Jan. 6 of this year about a new study of low-wage workers by UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Though the story identifies the study as originating with the Institute, it also twice refers to it as “UCLA study,” which it is not.

The two institutes are also controversial within the university itself. In 2008, around the time Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed $5.4 million in state funding for the two think tanks (they’ve been operating on pure university funds ever since), UC officials began debating amongst themselves about how much university money they should pour into the institutes to keep them around.

“This is an institute created by the legislature for the purposes of labor advocacy and training programs,” UC VP Lenz wrote in a Sept. 25, 2008 e-mail obtained through a public records request. “The unions benefit from by these programs and use them against the UC in their collective bargaining negotiations and advocacy efforts with the legislature. I’d find it ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ if we get stuck funding these Institutes in the future out of the UC budget at a time when the state is cutting our funding, but pressuring us to give more at the collective bargaining table.”

A month later, when labor center personnel began complaining of the budget cuts, saying they were hit “disproportionately,” Debora Obley, a UC associate vice president in the budget office, fired back with some vitriol. “We can’t possibly be expected, in a year such as this, to make up their entire or even most of their funding,” she wrote in an Oct. 17, 2008 e-mail. “We have $150 million worth of cuts to deal with. That is huge and we don’t have money just lying around. Can you imagine the firestorm inside the University if we cut everyone more in order to fund this one? That won’t work either. We’re trying for a balance.”

The university eventually restored some funding, and continues to do so to this day, after high-pressure campaign to save the institutes. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, state Superintendent Jack O’Connell and a host of others wrote letters to UC President Mark Yudof begging for the university to save the Miguel Contreras Labor Program.

“In the past year, the UC Berkeley Labor Center, which is funded through the program, has produced groundbreaking studies on healthcare reform, attracting and retaining high skill, high wage jobs, and on the future of the ‘green jobs’ in California,” NAACP President Benjamin T. Jealous wrote to Yudof on Oct. 14, 2008. “No other research institute in the UC system has produced as many high quality studies on topics of such critical importance to the California economy.”

Of course, the campaign to save the institutes was orchestrated in some clumsy ways. Like the fact that the paragraph from Jealous’ letter cited above also appeared, word for word, in a shorter letter (dated Nov. 7, 2008) to Yudof from Attorney General Jerry Brown.

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