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Center for Labor Research and Education

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The Labor Center celebrates 50 years

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In July of 1964, the Regents of the University of California ratified the establishment of Centers for Labor Research and Education at the UC Berkeley and the UCLA campuses. The blueprint for these new centers resulted from extensive planning between the UC Berkeley Institute of Industrial Relations (IIR), led by UC president Clark Kerr and IIR director Lloyd Ulman, and the California Labor Federation (CLF), led by secretary-treasurer Tommy Pitts and research director Don Vial. It projected an ambitious and pioneering partnership between the university and the labor movement by establishing a service unit that would address the education and research needs of trade unionists and other working people in California.

The Labor Centers have always envisioned a broad purpose to labor education that includes grappling with the large socio-economic issues facing working people, and the role that labor can play in finding solutions. The Berkeley Labor Center’s history of activities includes a conference on the “War on Poverty” in 1965; a conference in 1968 that examined the Kerner Commission Report on race relations; convenings to find common ground between labor and environmentalists in the mid ‘70s; research and workshops on inflation and unemployment in the late ‘70s; sessions on comparable worth, child care, drug and alcohol testing, and sexual harassment in the 1980s; and conferences and courses on immigration, contingent workers and globalization beginning in the 1990s.

The Berkeley Labor Center also developed innovative programs that increased working people’s access to advanced education. Through the “Leadership Training for Minority Trade Unionists” program funded by the Ford Foundation in the 1970s, emerging union leaders of color received scholarships for six months of full-time study at UC Berkeley in a specially developed curriculum. Many program graduates later rose to the highest ranks of leadership in the California labor movement and beyond. Growing from this program was the development of a Bay Area-wide university-community college consortium in Labor and Urban Studies that led to labor studies programs at Merritt College, City College of San Francisco, College of San Mateo and San Jose City College. These programs satisfied both the leadership development needs of organized labor and the personal educational goals of individuals who enrolled.

Besides sponsoring its own programs, the Berkeley Labor Center initiated projects that eventually led to independent programs. In 1969, responding to the needs of public sector labor and management representatives who found themselves in a new type of labor relations as a result of recently-passed collective bargaining laws, the Labor Center formed the California Public Employee Relations project. In 1974, following the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 and revelations of long-term health hazards at some workplaces, the Labor Center secured funding from the Ford Foundation to establish the Labor Occupational Health Program to provide resources and training to unions on health and safety issues. Today each of these programs is independent from the Berkeley Labor Center, though the programs work together when interests overlap.

Beginning in the mid 1980s, the Labor Center began to focus on curriculum development, training of trainers, and publishing pamphlets and books designed for use by labor educators and union practitioners on subjects such as labor economics, costing out contracts, and arbitration and mediation. In 1986, it first published California Workers Rights, the only comprehensive guide for workers about their rights on the job.

In the 1990s, the Berkeley Labor Center’s programs reflected new trends in the labor movement through an emphasis on organizing the unorganized, transforming unions, and promoting labor standards in economic development projects. It convened the Labor Immigrant Organizing Network (LION), a network of community and union organizers that drafted the resolution adopted by the AFL-CIO calling for amnesty for undocumented workers and repeal of employer sanctions. It provided research on living wage policies at the Port of Oakland and provided research and technical assistance to the San Francisco airport organizing committee. It also established the John F. Henning Institute for Labor Relations, a program to promote research and education about global labor strategies.

With the establishment of the statewide Institute for Labor and Employment in 2000, the Labor Center received an infusion of funding and hired staff that undertook numerous new initiatives. Among these were a summer internship program that introduces UC students to working with unions; a Black workers organizing research project and conference; a young workers participatory research project with the food and commercial workers union; human service projects with public sector unions concerning homecare research, child care organizing, and organizing the workers who serve the developmentally disabled; a worker rights book for students of English; an immigrant workers center with the Teamsters; a teach-in for UC students and unionists on labor issues, and many more. Current research focuses on the dangers of a low-wage economy: the cost to taxpayers of low-wage work and the social impact of employers shifting costs of health care to employees. Current classes for union activists are on strategic campaigns, lead organizer training, financial skills, and media strategies. The Labor Center’s staff also assists in teaching at the California Union Leadership School and the Summer Institute for Union Women, and is developing curricula for workers organizing in global export processing zones, including in China.

The accomplishments of the Labor Center in its first 40 years are numerous and far-reaching. It has enrolled over 45,000 unionists and academics in its workshops, conferences, and courses; it has published cutting-edge research of direct use to unions in their organizing and policy work; it has institutionalized ongoing educational opportunities for labor leaders and rank-and-filers alike; it has published numerous books, pamphlets, and videos that address workers’ issues; and it has helped bring the resources of the university to California’s working families.