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.