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Soundings

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“Scholarship” as Advocacy
Governor Schwarzenegger should terminate the University of California’s “labor centers.”
Autumn 2003

The University of California’s network of “labor centers,” operating under the umbrella of the Institute for Labor and Employment (ILE), has won some $21 million in state money to fund research, much of which has simply promoted labor’s position on a host of issues, including supporting union-boosting living-wage laws and union-organizing efforts (see “Union U,” Summer 2003).

The ILE has made the news most recently by aiding organized labor’s unsuccessful effort to defeat the recall of Democratic governor Gray Davis. Institute staffers led a series of seminars around the state that trained union members for the movement known as WAR—Workers Against the Recall. The UCLA Labor Center was even going to host one of the seminars, until complaints by pro-recall forces led the sponsors to move the session off campus. When recall backers showed up at the seminar to complain about institute involvement, fights erupted between union members and the protesters.

ILE officials vigorously deny that the institute had any formal role in the anti-recall efforts. They claim, rather, that they had merely intended to make space on campus available for a public meeting, implying that they would have hosted a pro-recall meeting, too—a dubious contention. Staff members, ILE reps added, were participating on their own time.

Whatever the truth may be, this controversy is merely the labor institute’s latest. The California State Legislature founded the ILE a couple of years ago, at the unions’ urging, for the ostensible purpose of conducting research on the state’s economy and working people. In its brief history, however, it has used money granted to it by the cash-strapped state—including $4 million this year—to sponsor such dubious and partisan projects as training local union workers to dig up dirt on major property owners and investors, studying ways to organize young workers in California’s supermarket industry, and researching how best to fight the privatization of welfare services.

This kind of campus labor advocacy is coming under increasing fire. In August, after some professors complained that politics was intruding on scholarship, UCLA’s administration disavowed a “study” of worker health-care benefits at a local Indian casino that a group working under the ILE umbrella had sponsored. And earlier in the summer, the Pacific Research Foundation, a California free-market think tank, awarded the ILE its Golden Fleece prize for wasting public money on projects like “Making People Pro-Union,” a politicized study that cost the taxpayers $20,000.

The ILE was understandably anxious to rout the recall. Governor Davis and the Democratic-led California State Legislature were the ILE’s biggest friends. But the fat public funding for projects of questionable academic value is unlikely to survive in the new Schwarzenegger era—along with the fat public funding for unneeded layers of unionized government employees.

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