UC still funds pro-union think tank

AUGUST 16, 2010

By ANTHONY PIGNATARO

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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  1. John Seiler
    John Seiler 17 August, 2010, 18:40

    It’s another good reason to privatize the whole UC system, ending all taxpayer subsidies. No more tax-funded brainwashing.

    Reply this comment
  2. Concerned Educator
    Concerned Educator 18 August, 2010, 11:14

    To John,
    Respectfully, may I ask, if there is no more tax-funded brainwashing as you state above, can you agree then that the alternative would be corporate brainwashing? Is that any better? I think it is actually worse.

    Reply this comment
  3. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 18 August, 2010, 13:28

    So “concerned (and misinformed) educator” — Harvard, Yale and the hundreds of other private colleges and universities teach “corporate brainwashing”? You need to get out of your government ivory tower once in a while.

    Reply this comment
  4. Milan Moravec
    Milan Moravec 17 October, 2010, 14:24

    UC Berkeley funded consultants instead of students and faculty. UC Berkeley’s recent elimination of popular sports programs highlighted endemic problems in the university’s management. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau’s eight-year fiscal track record is dismal indeed. He would like to blame the politicians in Sacramento, since they stopped giving him every dollar he has asked for, and the state legislators do share some responsibility for the financial crisis. But not in the sense he means.
    A competent chancellor would have been on top of identifying inefficiencies in the system and then crafting a plan to fix them. Competent oversight by the UC Board of Regents and the California legislature would have required him to provide data on problems and on what steps he was taking to solve them. Instead, every year Birgeneau would request a budget increase, the regents would agree to it, and the legislature would provide. The hard questions were avoided by all concerned, and the problems just piled up to $150 million….until there was no money left.
    It’s not that Birgeneau was unaware that there were, in fact, waste and inefficiencies in the system. Faculty and staff have raised issues with senior management, but when they failed to see relevant action taken, they stopped. Finally, Birgeneau engaged some expensive ($3 million) consultants, Bain , to tell him what he should have been able to find out from the bright, engaged people in his own organization and the academic senate..
    From time to time, a whistleblower would bring some glaring problem to light, but the chancellor’s response was to dig in and defend rather than listen and act. Since UC has been exempted from most whistleblower lawsuits, there are ultimately no negative consequences for maintaining inefficiencies.
    In short, there is plenty of blame to go around. But you never want a serious crisis to go to waste. An opportunity now exists for the UC president, Board of Regents, and California legislators to jolt UC Berkeley back to life, applying some simple check-and-balance management principles. Increasing the budget is not enough; transforming senior management is necessary. The faculty, students, staff, academic senate, Cal. alumni, and taxpayers await the transformation.

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