Labor Study Is Alone Under Gov.'s Budget Ax
Schwarzenegger plan to eliminate institute sets off debate about the role taken on by colleges.
By Evan Halper
Times Staff Writer
April 8, 2004
SACRAMENTO Of the hundreds of research institutes in California's public university system, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has targeted just one for elimination: a think tank dedicated to organized labor.
It is the scourge of conservatives and industry groups. They call it "Union U" and charge that the institute has been used to train union "thugs" to beat up political opponents.
But to founders, the Institute for Labor and Employment, based at UCLA and UC Berkeley, is a place where union leaders and academics can come together to explore workforce issues and trends.
The fate of the small institute is taking a prominent role in a high-stakes budget battle in Sacramento and a national debate over the place of organized labor in university classrooms, fueled by charges that the programs are merely a training ground for union activists.
On his own authority in December, Schwarzenegger cut $2 million from the institute - what remained of its allocation through the current fiscal year, which ends in June. He has proposed eliminating it entirely next year. And even if the Legislature includes it in the budget, he can take out the $4-million program before signing the spending plan.
The governor's office directed questions to the Department of Finance, where a spokesman denied the cut was politically motivated.
"It wasn't targeted," said H.D. Palmer, adding that industry and conservative groups had played no role in the decision. "To my knowledge, there was zero interaction with any of those type of groups."
But John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, calls Schwarzenegger's proposal part of a "conservative attack to cut labor studies programs."
The state's labor center, created under former Gov. Gray Davis in 2001 and well-liked by Democratic legislative leaders, holds workshops on how to increase union membership, get more at the bargaining table and fight globalization. It sponsors interdisciplinary research on a range of workplace topics, from gender discrimination and family leave to the role of unions in the new economy.
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says "the information they provide has been extremely useful. They look at the entire labor market and ask hard questions about why the labor market looks the way it does, how it is evolving and how it could evolve."
Officials at the institute say their close connections with unions are no less appropriate than the relationships between corporations and the state's business schools. An associate director openly calls it "a small beachhead for organized labor" in academia. And he makes no apologies for a flier for a recent event that featured a drawing of workers joined in solidarity as a pig in a police uniform and a menacing-looking Richard Nixon lurk in the background.
Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) sits on the institute's advisory board and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuņez (D-Los Angeles), a former union organizer himself, has vowed to protect it, so the relatively tiny state allocation will test the will of the governor and legislative Democrats to fight for their core constituencies.
As anti-tax activists and union critics express outrage and mobilize behind Schwarzenegger's plan, administration officials say their goal is merely to save money without harming basic classes taught at the state's universities. "We could have taken the money out of a different part of the budget affecting classroom instruction. We chose not to do that," Palmer said.
Democrats, however, say that dozens of other institutes fit that description, and the labor studies program is the only one targeted. "It's something we are very concerned about," said Burton, who suggested the cut is "a gratuitous philosophic whack at labor."
Nuņez calls it "wrong and inconsistent to eviscerate the whole labor institute without touching the business school."
The labor institute describes its mission as "advancing knowledge, research and understanding of labor and workplace issues and the preeminent role of labor as a trendsetter in California and the nation."
It has provided scores of research grants to explore such issues as the challenges of organizing day laborers and the value of city living-wage laws, and it produces a widely used annual report on state labor trends and issues. At a leadership school and conferences the institute runs with unions, labor leaders discuss tactics for strengthening union clout.
"People all over the country have been excited about this and are trying to replicate it," says institute Director Ruth Milkman.
Within a year after it was formed, the program drew the ire of a major construction industry group.
Officials with the Associated Builders and Contractors of California, which represents open shop construction firms, say they were offended by the institute's favorable report on construction project labor agreements.
To the frustration of many contractors, those employment contracts between local unions and developers give organized labor a toehold in what would otherwise be nonunion jobs. They typically include baseline salary agreements and restrictions on hiring nonunion workers in return for assurances that there will be no walkouts or strikes. At the time, labor leaders were lobbying for such an agreement to be put in place for the construction of UC Merced, and they used the institute's study as evidence of the contracts' effectiveness.
The association called the study propaganda.
"They had all these rosy things to say about" the agreements, said legislative director Matt Tennis. "The picture they painted discriminated against contractors like the ones we represent."
"We looked into this further and realized we as taxpayers were the ones paying for this," he said. "That didn't agree with us, that our tax dollars were going to fund biased, anti-merit shop, pro-union propaganda."
Conservative activists across the country soon joined the association's drive to eliminate the program. In articles, newsletters and web postings, they warned that it was political correctness run amok - activism cloaked as academia. At taxpayers' expense.
Steve Malanga, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a libertarian think tank based in New York, published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal characterizing the institute as a partisan training ground for labor activists, set on turning "the classroom into a soapbox, from which professors rail against what labor considers its biggest threats."
The San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute presented the program with its "Golden Fleece Award" around the same time. "It is very clear they are there to produce research for a particular political agenda," said Andrew Gloger, a policy analyst at the institute.
Then the recall came, and a union group called Workers Against the Recall, or WAR, scheduled a weekend workshop for campaigning against it in an institute classroom in Los Angeles. The workshop was never held there, but soon afterward pro-recall supporters accused WAR members of roughing them up during a protest. Critics of the institute charged it had sponsored the alleged beatings.
The Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal advocacy group, alerted members that the program "received $4 million from the state of California specifically devoted to opposing the recall" and was using it for "paid government operatives" to attack recall supporters.
Scores of activists then e-mailed Milkman, calling her a shameless criminal and a communist. A typical message: "Why don't you move to Cuba?"
Staff members at the institute say charges that they sponsored political events, much less beatings, are nonsense. But the groundswell of opposition caught them off guard.
Peter Olney, associate director of the institute, points out the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 made "encouraging the practice and procedure of collective bargaining" official government policy.
"Given the corporate offense against unions, some folks forget this is the law of the land," he said. "Is anyone talking about eliminating the business school for balance? They receive a lot more funding than we do."
Labor leaders and academics across the country are weighing in on the institute's fate - and expressing concern that they could be next.
"There is no question there has been a growing attack nationally by some conservative organizations on labor studies and the idea that this kind of education is available for unions and workers at universities," said Susan Schurman, president of the George Meany Center for Labor Studies-National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., the official college of the AFL-CIO. Some academics question whether the UC system's labor studies program is being held to a different standard from other publicly funded institutes.
Cozy relationships between private organizations and public universities, they say, are not uncommon at all. UCLA's business school in June, for example, will hold a workshop for corporate executives on managerial negotiations, with a breakout session on "tough bargaining" on salaries. And research from the UC system is routinely used to benefit pharmaceutical, agricultural and other companies.
Critics of the program say the only problem they see with it is that the public is picking up the tab.