University of California brings Labor Summer internship to nine campuses

Anabel Sosa

A new statewide University of California initiative to train the next generation of labor leaders and union supporters received hundreds of applications for 100 internship positions with union and community organizations. In the past, the Labor Summer internship program, which originated at UC Berkeley, was offered at only three UC campuses. This year, the program will take place on nine UC campuses: Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz. The paid internship program matches graduate and undergraduate students with unions and community groups to hone their research and organizing skills to respond to the growing need for diverse leadership in worker organizations.

“Students from throughout the state now have the opportunity for this unique hands-on training,” said UC Berkeley Labor Center Deputy Chair Brenda Muñoz. “For some, this will lead to jobs in the labor movement after graduation. For everyday Californians it means that a new generation of diverse grassroots leaders will support unions and be prepared to take on challenges in the workplace and the community that will benefit all of us,” she added.

“This is a time of dynamic change for the labor movement, where we see more organizing campaigns than we have in many years,” said Kent Wong, the UCLA Labor Center director and professor of labor studies.

Wong has seen a marked increase in student interest in labor issues this past year, with nearly 300 students signed up for his course this semester.

“This is an opportunity for workers, for students within the University of California to get hands-on experience with some of the most dynamic campaigns happening today,” he said.

This summer, the eight-week paid internship program will welcome students from across California to work hands-on with some of the state’s most prominent labor unions. Past interns came from a range of disciplines, including international development, data science, anthropology, and economics, and used their skills to tackle problems facing working Californians.

The internship program will take place June 20 through August 11, and will include a one-week training period.

Jonathan Martin, a 22-year-old UC Santa Cruz graduate, who worked as a Labor Summer intern with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 in 2022, said the internship prepared him for the union volunteer work he does today.

“I really liked that Labor Summer gave me concrete experiences and skills to put into practice,” Martin, who came from a background in literature and politics, said. “Working as a staff organizer really taught me a lot of the ins and outs of how unions function and how democracy functions in unions. It’s provided me with great connections to people in the labor movement.”

Growing interest in labor organizing may have been strengthened after last November’s strike by 48,000 academic workers, including 36,000 graduate students, across the University of California. Following a 40-day strike, the graduate students, represented by the United Autoworkers, were able to bargain and ratify their contracts.

For many of those students, it was their first time involved in a labor action.

Wong from UCLA says that the strike was “a huge learning opportunity” for the tens of thousands of undergraduates on each of these campuses that experienced firsthand what collective action labor organization can look like.

Ana Padilla, executive director of the University of California, Merced Community and Labor Center, called the expansion of Labor Summer in 2023 “historic,” adding that it “brings tremendous opportunities for the UC Merced and Community and Labor Center to strengthen partnerships between labor and community, and to establish a pipeline for young leaders that sustains social and economic justice movements in the San Joaquin Valley region.”

“The UC labor centers have a tradition of building student leaders for the labor movement, for the immigrant rights movement, and for efforts to revitalize worker power,” said Edward Flores, faculty director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center. “The statewide initiative to expand summer internship opportunities for students builds on the UC’s promise as a public institution in California.”

Lili Banishashem, a senior at UC Berkeley pursuing a degree in data science, hopes to secure a spot Labor Summer in 2023. Banishashem was inspired to apply for the internship while taking professor Anibel Ferus-Comelo’s course, “Work, Class, Systems.”

Banishashem described the course as “path changing.”

“It was definitely confirmation for me that I was studying the right thing. I felt like I can actually be doing something that is creating good in the world.”