As a carwash worker in Los Angeles, Silvia Molina remembers working ten-hour days, earning only $35 a day.
After she was fired from the job for speaking out against her working conditions – workers were also left without a break room or space to eat their meals – Molina turned to the UCLA Labor Center, which connected her with lawyers and the CLEAN Carwash Campaign.
“The people at the center were the only ones who opened their doors to me and were willing to help me fight for my rights as a worker,” Molina said.
Molina’s story is just one example of the efforts of the Labor Center to broaden the opportunities available to workers and bridge the gap between higher education institutions and the workforce through research and outreach.
The UCLA Labor Center celebrated its 50th anniversary Thursday with a banquet honoring labor studies graduates, people involved with the workers’ rights movement and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
In his opening address, Kent Wong, the director of the center, said the struggle of the labor movement in 1964 was similar to that of the Civil Rights Movement and anti-war movements and stressed the importance of university student involvement.
The UCLA Labor Center was founded in 1964, when the labor movement was at its height, said Victor Narro, a project director at the center.
“The goal was to provide research, education and support to laborers and employers with a focus on issues such as unionization and immigration,” Narro said.
In the future, Narro said the center seeks to transform the labor movement to combat the deterioration of labor standards and involvement.
In addition to researching industries and working conditions, the UCLA Labor Center acts as a bridge between the university and workers by facilitating interaction with employers and unions, Wong said. The center also meets with lawmakers to discuss the implementation of policies that can affect workers’ rights and conditions.
The labor movement grew in the 1960s with the formation of unions as part of the broader current of civil rights activism, Wong said. Subsequent decades saw an increase of women, people of color and immigrants in the workforce, he added.
But the level of union involvement by workers has decreased since the 1960s, with only about six percent of employees in the private sector unionized and only about 11 percent of workers overall if the public sector is included, Narro said. The statistics are from a report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics earlier this year.
“People don’t see the labor movement in the same way as before and have gotten complacent,” Narro said. “A weak movement means a decline in standards.”
The initial expansion of the labor movement in the 1960s has been tempered by growing economic inequality in the last few decades due to less participation and a poor immigration system, Wong said.
“It is precisely this inequality that has led to the growing number of working poor,” he added. “We now turn our attention to contributing factors such as wage theft and better labor law enforcement.”
Stefanie Ritoper, the communications director for the center, said the center’s mission has not changed, but the issues it deals with have.
Projects of the Labor Center have included summer internship programs for immigrant youth, conferences with labor representatives from Latin America and Asia and aiding in the establishment of the first unionized car washes in the United States.
Regem Corpuz, a fourth-year political science student and speaker at the banquet, is participating in the labor and workplace studies minor sponsored by the center.
As a participant in the Dream Summer program sponsored by the center, Corpuz became involved in researching the interconnectivity between immigrant workers and the economy.
“The center teaches us how to develop and apply real-life research skills to the problems that labor faces,” Corpuz said.
In addition to traditional efforts in unionization and immigration, the center has broadened to focus on healthcare, environmentalism and globalization, Ritoper said.
The center has sponsored surveys about health issues in immigrant communities and has created “incubation centers” to develop green jobs and focus on environmental issues, she added.