Friday, November 16

Labor center fights threat of erasure


For Kent Wong and the UCLA Labor Center, this year is starting
to play out like a bad case of deja vu.

In a year when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed
increasing state funding to the University of California by $97.5
million, the labor center is facing a $3.8 million cut that would
all but eliminate it. Though the implications of the cut are dire,
to Wong, the center’s director, they are nothing new: Last
year, the labor center faced virtually the same budget cut and the
same prospect of extinction.

In 2004, Schwarzenegger proposed cutting the labor
center’s entire budget, a move that would have saved the
state $4 million but also would have eliminated one of the few
institutions in the UC that studies labor and workforce issues.

Lobbying efforts by the university, community activists and
ultimately the intervention of the state Legislature restored $3.8
million of those funds, meaning a 5 percent reduction.

On Jan. 10 of this year, the governor again proposed slicing out
the center’s $3.8 million operating budget ““ a move
that center officials say is politically motivated and comes at a
time when the state is also considering cuts to worker’s
compensation.

Though Wong says he is “guardedly optimistic” that
the center will be able to stave off the proposed cuts again, he is
blunt when he describes what will happen if the state does follow
through on the governor’s proposal, which would eliminate 75
percent of the center’s funding.

“It would decimate our activities and our staff, and it
would lead to massive layoffs,” he said.

The center’s staff also argues that if the budget cut
stands, it would jeopardize an area they feel UCLA and higher
education in general does not spend as much time on as it should:
the study and aid of the common worker.

“If that were to be the final outcome, it would seriously
cut the amount of research and service being done around issues
surrounding working people, especially low-income people,”
said Gary Blasi, the acting director of the Institute of Labor and
Employment at UCLA.

Besides stranding the over 50 staff members and students who
work with the center, the proposed budget cut would cripple the
university’s interaction with labor unions, community
activists and low-wage workers, and it would virtually scuttle a
university department that dates back to World War II.

The UCLA Labor Center was formed under the umbrella of the UC
Institute of Industrial Relations, established in 1945. The mission
of the institute and the center is to address education and
research issues that involve the working people of California.

Since its founding in 1964, the center has been intricately
involved in bridging the gap between UCLA and the labor movement in
Los Angeles and throughout the state. Wong estimates the institute
uses up to 60 percent of its budget to sponsor research by nine UC
campuses on issues ranging from the effect of international tariffs
on the California economy to the safety of workers in small
businesses. The center also has been instrumental in coordinating
the labor and workplace studies minor to students.

In 2002, the center opened a downtown branch near MacArthur Park
that allows students and staff to meet and work with laborers in
Los Angeles. At 6,000 square feet, the center has room for a
classroom, a computer lab and conference room, and center officials
praise it for its proximity to Los Angeles’ diverse
workforce.

“From UCLA, we can outreach to Brentwood and Beverly Hills
and Bel Air,” Wong said with a laugh. “But in terms of
the working people, MacArthur Park is a great place to do
that.”

And just two weeks ago, the center launched a six-month project
to study the impact of Wal-Mart on local economies and the state
workforce.

The project, which is bringing union and community leaders
together with UCLA students and staff, will unveil its findings in
spring quarter.

Other areas of the university that study labor issues also rely
on the center for support and co-programming. The UCLA Labor
Occupational Safety and Health Program, which monitors occupational
safety and trains workers to become activists, often works with the
center to do community outreach, said Linda Delp, the director of
the program.

For example, not long ago, the Labor Occupational Safety and
Health Program worked with the center to hold a conference that
brought in UCLA staff and students to educate high school students
on working conditions and job safety, which took a level of
coordination that would be difficult to achieve if the
center’s budget is cut. “We always work with them on
that,” Delp said. “There’s no way we could do
that whole program ourselves.”

“We’re a state university, and we should be serving
and meeting the needs of the people in the state.”

But as the state budget has fallen on tough times, so has the
center. Last year, because of the 5 percent budget cut, the
Institute of Labor and Employment had to get rid of the
administrative staff that coordinated programs between the labor
center at UCLA and the one at UC Berkeley.

Now, even though this is the first time in four years a
California governor has proposed increasing funds to the UC, the
labor center once again finds itself before a budgetary firing
squad.

Center officials do not view the proposed budget cut as an
isolated incident. Rather, they argue that it is part of a series
of measures that are threatening workers across the state.

Delp says the proposed elimination of the labor center comes at
a particularly bad time for workers, given that the state is also
looking into cutting worker benefits and wages.

And employees are quick to point out that the amount of money
Schwarzenegger proposes saving by cutting the center is only a
fraction of the funding given to institutions that focus on
corporations and the employer.

The UCLA Anderson School of Management, for example, which is
consistently ranked in the top 20 business schools in the country,
received $15.8 million in state funds last year, roughly four times
the funding received by the labor center.

“The resources that are allocated to worker education and
issues is miniscule in comparison to the resources allocated to the
corporate community, not just at UCLA but systemwide,” Wong
said.

But center employees say what troubles them most is that they
feel they are being targeted for budget cuts for political
reasons.

Wong, who called the proposed cuts “a politically
motivated attack” and “fundamentally … an attack on
academic freedom,” said the Schwarzenegger administration is
aiming to cut the center because it advocates on behalf of the
common worker, which Wong said is perceived as going against the
business-friendly environment the governor wishes to foster in
California to rejuvenate the state economy.

Schwarzenegger’s office referred calls regarding the state
budget to the Department of Finance. H.D. Palmer, the spokesman for
the finance department, did not return phone calls seeking
comment.

The field of labor studies is no stranger to political
controversy. Republicans have accused Democrats of supporting labor
studies in a transparent attempt to garner votes among low-wage
workers and immigrants, and Democrats have argued that Republicans
want to squelch the labor movement.

It is unclear why the governor proposed cutting the labor center
when he also proposed increasing funding in other areas. But Wong
said it could set a bad precedent.

“If funds for a university should be based on how one
provides a business-friendly environment, then there are a lot of
areas at the university that would be superfluous, according to the
governor,” he said.

Whether the labor center will actually be cut is far from
certain. Schwarzenegger’s budget proposal will undergo many
revisions before a budget is passed this coming summer, and until
then the university, state legislators, and various labor leaders
will lobby on the center’s behalf.

Both Wong and Blasi said they are fairly confident the coalition
of support the labor center can assemble will mitigate the proposed
cuts.

And in the meantime, the center will take it as a dubious honor
to be one of the few areas of the university targeted for budget
cuts this year.

“That the governor’s minions would take the time to
single us out must mean we’re doing something
effective,” Blasi said.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterEmail this to someoneShare on Google+Share on Reddit

Comments are supposed to create a forum for thoughtful, respectful community discussion. Please be nice. View our full comments policy here.