The best labor studies programs like to think of themselves as activist-oriented–firmly grounded in the gritty world of workers. They don’t usually find themselves at the center of high-profile political disputes. But in Sacramento cloakrooms, where lobbyists normally whisper blandishments into legislators’ ears, the University of California’s labor studies program is now being discussed in language once reserved for reds, and worse. The program, lobbyists say, not only organized meetings to stop the recall of then-Governor Gray Davis, but last summer “union thugs” supposedly even left those meetings to beat up recall petition circulators.

The accusations sound pretty wild, even considering California’s usual election histrionics, but they’re more than just overheated rhetoric. It’s payback time in Sacramento. When newly elected Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unilaterally imposed draconian budget cuts on the state just before Christmas, he wiped out this year’s remaining funding for the Institute for Labor and Employment. If he does the same thing with next year’s appropriation in March, the institute will be destroyed.

The current set of charges are the latest in a long effort to eliminate the ILE once and for all. Behind them is a political alliance between the state’s Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC, the powerful lobby for nonunion construction companies) and the Pete Wilson wing of the state’s Republican Party, which has retaken the governor’s mansion.

The ABC in particular has been gunning for the ILE for two years, since it conducted a survey in 2001 of “project labor agreements” (or PLAs)–arrangements in which wages, benefits and union status are hammered out before work begins on major construction projects. The ILE published its findings in a working paper. This sounds pretty innocuous, but PLAs are a big roadblock to the growth of nonunion construction. Builders are so incensed about them, and so powerful, that the agreements were actually banned by President Bush as one of his first acts in office (facing Congressional opposition, he later allowed agreements for then-current projects to continue, but prohibited PLAs on new federal projects).

Labor studies programs around the country are watching what is happening to the ILE in California with trepidation. Conservative foundations have been orchestrating a national attack on labor studies. If the opponents of the ILE prevail, activist-oriented programs in Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri and other states will be next on the right-wing hit list.

The controversy raises a fundamental question about labor rights–should joining a union be protected and encouraged by law and public policy, or are unions just a narrow private interest? At the beginning of the builders’ campaign in California, Steve Friar, executive director of the San Diego-Imperial County Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction, wrote an op-ed in Riverside’s North County Times in which he asked,”Unions are private organizations, so why are taxpayers required to cough up money for union propaganda to be filtered throughout the state?” Well, because encouraging collective bargaining has been public policy since 1936. Besides, the same university spends many times that tax money promoting the goals of another private institution–business.

Yet the question indicates how far public discourse has moved since the National Labor Relations Act became the nation’s basic law giving unions legal status. The act’s preamble holds that employees should (not can) band together to bargain. To accept Friar’s argument, that social goal has to be deemed a “private” special interest. In fact, this change in public consciousness is one important objective of the attack on labor studies.

There’s another, unspoken assumption as well. Every economic policy adopted by Congress, and by every state, assumes that the proper purpose of economic activity is the creation of private profit. In the current political climate, profit-making is even equated with democracy. Business schools treat increasing productivity–that is, the rapid and efficient accumulation of profit–not only as economically necessary but as a patriotic duty.

“Can you imagine a business administration program that doesn’t take for granted the need to make profits?” asks Elaine Bernard, who heads Harvard’s Trade Union Program, “or that doesn’t want to talk to business leaders, or place its students in companies?” But when a labor program assumes that workers should strive to raise wages and improve conditions, it’s considered selfish–against the public interest.

In July, for instance, at the height of recall mayhem in California, the Institute for Labor and Employment was given the “California Golden Fleece Award” by the Pacific Research Institute, a right-wing think tank. (From 2000 through 2002, PRI received $450,000 from the Sarah Scaife Foundation and $150,000 from the John M. Olin Foundation, both prominent funders of ultraconservative causes.) ILE’s crimes, listed on PRI’s website, included popularizing unions in high schools and adult schools and doing research that supported campaigns to raise the minimum wage and pass “living wage” ordinances. The PRI called all this evidence of ILE’s “anti-capitalism” that “strikes at the heart of a basic economic freedom in America–the right of employers and employees to freely negotiate compensation.” The not-so-subtle implication was that workers should negotiate as individuals, not in unions.

In August the PRI’s agenda became even clearer. In an Orange County Register op-ed, PRI staffers Andrew Gloger and Lawrence McQuillan suggested ominously that “a Davis defeat could signal an end to the ILE. But would that be such a bad thing?” The Register, voice of the most extreme of the state’s Republicans, editorialized, “Here’s a program that ought to go, even if the state weren’t submerged in red ink.”

Finally, the recall forces (mobilized by the website sent out an e-mail appeal on August 17, accusing the ILE of organizing anti-recall workshops “where recall supporters are beaten.” In actual fact, UCLA’s Downtown Labor Center had been asked by building trades unions to allow use of one of its rooms for a meeting to discuss anti-recall strategy. The center agreed, but the meeting was later moved to another site, and no labor center staff even went to it. The only beating was a sidewalk scuffle in Sacramento, where pro-recallers picketed an anti-recall event that had no connection to the labor center. Nevertheless, recall organizers linked the labor center to the incident. Their site asked readers to send e-mail messages to ILE director Ruth Milkman (a UCLA professor); Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center; and even Richard Atkinson, then president of the University of California.

One e-mail response asked “Are you completely a criminal?????” “The nation is awakening to you liberal (communist) elitists…why don’t u move to cuba,” warned another. Meanwhile, ABC lobbyist Matt Tennis, in Sacramento’s Capitol Morning Report, asked innocently, “Why are California taxpayers paying for a program that trains union officials how to defeat the recall campaign against Gray Davis?”

The attack on the ILE could close the doors of one of the best-funded labor studies programs in the country. Three years ago, the Institute for Labor and Employment was created in cooperation with the California Labor Federation and pro-labor legislators. By winning a permanent multimillion-dollar yearly appropriation, this new umbrella institution was able to begin expanding the decades-old programs at Berkeley and Los Angeles to eight of the system’s nine campuses.

The ILE’s creation came on the heels of a change in direction in the old programs. In the mid-1990s a new set of academics and staff took charge in Berkeley and Los Angeles, with a much more dynamic vision of the ILE’s relationship with workers and unions. The Labor Center in Los Angeles became an institution in which students, academics and union organizers studied the increasing role of immigrants in the Los Angeles work force. The Center for Labor Research and Education in Berkeley gave a home to labor activists who formed the Labor Immigrant Organizing Network, and then wrote the resolution that changed the position of the AFL-CIO itself on immigration.

The activism of immigrant workers in California certainly wasn’t making the construction industry happy. In one 1992 strike alone, thousands of immigrant drywall workers paralyzed home construction in Southern California–just one of many such battles. So a labor center with real links to those workers and the unions helping them was not something the builders were disposed to like.

This same change in the direction of labor studies has taken place far beyond California, reflecting a larger effort among labor academics to reject the habits and assumptions of cold war, business trade unionism. Cold war-era labor studies programs became large institutions on the campuses of land-grant state universities. They taught labor economics, trained stewards and union negotiators, and examined health and safety problems. But these worthwhile functions were tied to a philosophy of labor-management cooperation, which was founded on the premise that corporations would pursue a policy of enlightened self-interest–acceptance of unions and willingness to bargain.

The era of enlightened corporate self-interest is long gone, however, if indeed it ever existed. For more than two decades the country’s largest corporations have busted unions as a normal part of business activity, and have lost whatever interest they had in labor-management cooperation. It should be no surprise, then, that the end of union acceptance in the workplace should bring with it an end to the prestige of labor-management cooperation in academia. If employers don’t want it, who does?

In truth, the best labor studies programs these days aren’t very interested in labor-management cooperation either. In general, they are less focused on the institutional needs of unions and more attuned to the larger social and economic issues affecting the labor movement. “Teaching students how to file grievances and write unfair labor practice charges in an era in which workers are fired in 31 percent of all organizing drives is pretty irrelevant,” says Tom Juravich, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts.

“There are two different ideas of labor studies,” explains Bernard. “One puts the labor movement under a microscope for outside people to examine it. When the labor movement was on the ascendant in the 1960s and ’70s, universities saw them as a powerful institution in society. That was good, but the guiding idea in industrial relations was how to stop struggle and have labor peace, how to quiet people down. The other philosophy sees that labor is about working people, and is involved with them. We would expect to see programs like that come under attack.”

In university industrial-relations departments of the cold war era, union-related studies were a small part of larger programs that analyzed ways to boost productivity and otherwise help employers manage workers. Today the conservative academics Bernard describes have gone off to business schools to teach human resource management. That leaves the field of labor studies smaller, but sharper. And that’s the threat that right-wing think tanks have identified.

Writer Steven Malanga has been their primary national voice. Malanga was given a grant by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism to mount the initial attack in New York’s City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute last summer. Charles Brunie is the institute’s chairman emeritus. Like the Pacific Research Institute, the Manhattan Institute is a conduit for funds coming from some of the nation’s most conservative foundations–$475,000 from Sarah Scaife and $585,000 from the Bradley Foundation between 2000 and 2002. The John M. Olin Foundation, which gave $951,000, is represented on the Manhattan Institute’s board by James Piereson.

“Increasingly, these programs have come to define their mission chiefly as supporting labor and its organizing efforts rather than educating students,” Malanga says. Like the PRI, he singles out those activities carried on by labor studies programs that affect the poor and immigrants, heaping scorn on studies defending the minimum wage and supporting living-wage ordinances.

One suspects that Malanga would not have been satisfied, even twenty years ago, with a business-union approach to labor studies. Yet he yearns for that past “when labor bosses were culturally conservative, supported pro-growth policies, and sent their hardhats to battle long-haired students over the war in Vietnam.” Today, he fulminates, labor studies programs “dispatch student interns to help unions organize” and “use classrooms to push the labor movement’s tendentious views of privatization, globalization, and corporate America,” substituting “propaganda and activism for the disinterested pursuit of truth.”

Of course, the discussions in college classrooms of privatization and globalization, or even the miserable wages of the university’s own immigrant janitors (not to mention teaching assistants themselves) are not held as a result of orders from the AFL-CIO. These are burning questions for a whole generation of young people. Labor studies programs that don’t engage them run the risk of being irrelevant, and left without students. Juravich says simply, “Students are less interested in the AFL, and more in sweatshops.”

The program at the University of Massachusetts was also reorganized in the early 1990s. According to Juravich, the old labor studies programs made the mistake of clinging to a service model for curriculum. “Our program and California’s moved away from that. We don’t wait for the labor movement to tell us what to do. We initiated research into the work force of our area, like the 3,000 fish-processing workers in New Bedford. We do strategic research for organizing, to see how power flows. I understand that feels inappropriate to people threatened by our independence and the strategic nature of what we do. That’s why our field is in crisis, with an attack on the major player and on our funding. It’s a very dangerous time.”

Following his first foray against labor studies, Malanga wrote a second City Journal article this fall, in which he repeated the same distortions peddled by the ABC and its recall allies. This time he accused the ILE of digging 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.” Like his friends at PRI, he too ends with a threat. “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.”

The long knives are out, and the ILE may just be the first to feel their sharp cuts.