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Union U By: Steven Malanga
City Journal | Wednesday, July 23, 2003


Just when you thought America’s universities—with their multiculti curricula, anti-Americanism, and intolerance of open debate—couldn’t possibly get any more radical and partisan, along comes the next new thing: the labor movement’s successful effort to co-opt academic departments and programs on campuses from coast to coast.

For years, universities have offered courses in “labor studies,” often taught by ardent labor movement activists. But ever since the mid-1990s, when the labor movement began to revive under the leadership of AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney, these departments have grown in importance, nurtured by a new generation of savvy union leaders. Increasingly, these programs have come to define their mission chiefly as supporting labor and its organizing efforts rather than educating students. Working in close cooperation with unions—and with scant input from anyone who does not follow the labor movement’s party line—these programs now pump out one-sided research to bolster labor’s legislative agenda, and they dispatch student interns to help unions organize workers. They sponsor seminars and radio programs that advance union goals, and they use classrooms to push the labor movement’s tendentious views of privatization, globalization, and corporate America. Even more than other programs in today’s increasingly politicized universities, labor studies programs substitute propaganda and activism for the disinterested pursuit of truth.

Who funds this whirlwind of activity that advances the private interests of a small subset of American workers? We, the taxpayers, do: nearly all of these programs, especially the most militant and ideological, operate from publicly funded universities.

When labor studies programs arose just after World War II, mostly in the “extension” or continuing-education divisions of universities, their aim was modest: to help create a better-educated generation of union workers to combat mob control, corruption, and communist influence. “If labor leaders could be better educated, it was thought this would lead to fewer confrontations and fewer strikes,” says Judy Ancel, director of the Institute for Labor Studies at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. At first, labor viewed these programs with suspicion and seemed doubtful that the handful of innocuous courses on how to run union meetings and elections, for instance, or on the duties of a shop steward, workplace safety, and contract administration, could help them much.

But this modest field began to change rapidly in the late 1960s, when state legislatures started giving public-sector employees the right to organize. Newly potent public unions, in their quest for an ever greater share of taxpayer spending, advocated for more labor-related studies resources at public universities (among many other things). In quick order, many states complied, setting up labor studies courses, undergraduate majors, and research centers on labor topics, till by the mid-1970s several dozen centers and departments were flourishing, mostly at public institutions. They arose just as a new generation of administrators and professors began to radicalize instruction by dumping core curriculum requirements, lowering standards, and replacing the objective pursuit of knowledge with social agendas. The result was a new kind of labor studies, more apt to encourage activism than teach students the fine points of employment trends or labor law. And these programs defined “labor” almost exclusively as “organized labor.”

The nearly 50 such programs operating today pulsate with energy and churn out new initiatives. In 1995, for instance, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst began a labor studies M.A. program in union leadership and administration—in essence, a professional school for union leaders that is emblematic of the transformation of the field from a backwater of continuing education to postgraduate academic status. In Michigan, in the late 1990s, the labor center at publicly funded Wayne State University, working with the radical left-wing group ACORN, began providing technical support to living-wage campaigns around the country. The center produced a detailed manual on how to organize such campaigns, which helped to spark successful efforts to raise the minimum wage for some workers in dozens of cities and provided a model of how academics could decisively advance union causes. In 2001, the California legislature, in response to union lobbying, dedicated millions in state money for research on labor issues and for a new multi-campus center for working-class studies that churns out reports supporting labor’s positions on a host of subjects.

Labor leaders have forged close alliances with these university programs, using union resources to cultivate students, professors, and administrators. AFL-CIO boss Sweeney quickly recognized that today’s left-wing university could provide labor with a new set of allies. Observing the fervor with which students and professors often supported university cafeteria and maintenance employees’ bids for higher wages, Sweeney moved to exploit the momentum.

In 1996 he began a union-funded program called “Union Summer,” in which college students spend five weeks working on union campaigns and learning how to organize. They then take their new skills back to campus as trained activists. These labor interns have helped lead protests on dozens of campuses against the use of low-paid foreign workers to manufacture university T-shirts and sweatshirts. They’ve marched in support of strikes by university and local government workers, and they have organized protests against cuts in state university budgets. More than 2,300 students have gone through the program to date.

Cementing the strong ties labor has built to labor studies professors and administrators, the scholarly association that represents labor studies programs merged with a Communications Workers of America local in 2000, making this scholarly organization in effect an AFL-CIO affiliate. The new organization, the United Association of Labor Educators, now holds its annual “education” conference in conjunction with the AFL-CIO. The theme of this year’s conference: “Building a Strong Grassroots Union Movement.” Educators participated in such workshops as “Grassroots Strategies to Support Labor’s Political Agenda” and “Organizing Strategies for an Ever-Changing Workforce.” Only a very few panels, such as one on teaching ethics in labor education classes, bore any relation to pedagogy. Thus have university professors been drafted as advocates for the union movement.

Although multicultural and other radical agendas have politicized course offerings in many university departments, labor studies is emerging as among the most partisan of fields because of the close bonds between unions and academics. Today, many labor programs state plainly that they exist primarily to promote unions and create a generation of advocates and activists. Their mission statements read like political manifestos rather than educational credos. Wayne State University’s labor center declares its main goal is “strengthening the capacity of organized labor to represent the needs and interests of workers” in a world of “corporate elites or state power.” The labor program at the University of California at Berkeley aims “to support the labor movement by providing research and education.” UMass Amherst says it trains students for a life in “organizations advocating for workers’ rights.”

This emphasis on advocacy has turned the classroom into a soapbox, from which professors rail against what labor considers its biggest threats. Enemy Number One is privatization, the practice by which governments contract with private companies to perform services—from running school cafeterias to picking up trash—usually done by unionized government employees. Though many urban reformers view privatization as an important way for government to spur efficiencies and save taxpayers money, a course in the University of Illinois at Urbana’s labor studies program demonizes privatization as nothing more than the “efforts of market-oriented forces to auction off public services to the highest bidder” (though usually such contracts go to the lowest bidder). According to the course description, students will learn that privatization’s nefarious purpose is to “dispense political patronage and to destroy public sector unions.”

Similarly, labor studies professors teach students that corporations are invariably evil empires to be battled. Declaring that we live in “an era of crushing corporate power and aggressive opposition to unions,” for example, a course in the master’s program at UMass Amherst teaches students how to do “corporate research,” examining firms for facts that unions can use to embarrass them or to gain political leverage over them in organizing campaigns or contract negotiations. In the same spirit, the UMass Amherst program sees financiers as a similarly vast and powerful conspiracy. The course description for “Labor in the U.S. Economy” includes a segment on “Finance Capital’s Control of National and Corporate Governance” and, as an antidote, another segment entitled “Reclaiming Our Economy: Common Sense Strategies for Workers,” based on AFL-CIO curriculum materials.

Little wonder that the labor movement is thrilled with today’s labor studies programs and that the AFL-CIO’s Sweeney heaps praise on the UMass Amherst program. “The Labor Center,” he enthuses, “has provided unflinching support for the labor movement through their research and teaching.” Of course, only the tendentious world of modern academia would view such an endorsement as meritorious or would consider such partisan classes higher education. “There is no analogy to this kind of partisanship,” says economist Howard Dickman, author of Industrial Democracy in America. “Imagine a business school that taught union-busting skills in its human resource classes and helped local businesses fight unions as part of a class project.”

With their sharp leftward tilt, many labor studies programs are housed not in business-administration or economics departments, which generally demand peer-reviewed faculty research and try to balance points of view in their courses, but in urban studies or interdisciplinary social science departments, where less rigorous standards of scholarship and more overt politicization of instruction often reign. Increasingly, labor studies departments are interdisciplinary programs, with course options far afield from the study of labor markets, human resources, or workplace safety. Students in the University of Michigan’s undergraduate labor studies program get to pick from courses like “Colonialism and Globalization,” “Gender, Development, and Inequality,” and “Race, Gender, and Empire in the Nuclear Age.” There is no mistaking the slant in these courses. “Gender and Globalization,” for instance, is “a critical and feminist examination of globalization,” its professor writes.

One current university trend that labor studies programs have enthusiastically embraced is “service learning,” which emphasizes community activism and political organizing as integral to the curriculum. Typical is the labor studies program at UMass Boston, housed in the school’s College of Public and Community Service, where “students are encouraged to become socially and politically active.” At Queens College of the City University of New York, professors developed a labor internship program, the Solidarity Project, with help from the university’s Education Center for Community Organizing, whose purpose is to stimulate social activism and community organizing in students. So pervasive has the culture of service learning become that administrators now regularly praise student activists who oppose their own campus policies. “We look at student protests as being a normal part of the educational process,” one of Harvard’s lawyers told the press, after students protested a university labor policy.

This elevation of activism as central to the educational experience has provided labor studies programs with a rationale for establishing numerous internship programs that send students out to battle for labor against the interests of businesses and taxpayers. Interns at UCLA’s labor program, attracted by the slogan, “If you are passionate about social and economic change, apply for the Summer Internship Program,” have helped unionize janitorial workers and have campaigned for controversial legislation to force Santa Monica businesses, including many small retailers, to raise the salaries of some employees. Interns from Berkeley’s labor center have worked on similar living-wage campaigns in Oakland and San Francisco. On the East Coast, UMass Amherst’s intern program has supplied student organizers for campaigns to unionize Georgia garment workers and Bay State nurses.

Parents and taxpayers don’t necessarily share the academics’ enthusiasm for such programs. Nic Ramos, who reports that in UCLA’s labor internship program he “learned everything from labor organizing, Gender Justice, Racial Justice, Queer Rights, Environmental Justice—I mean just everything and anything there was critical to studies of American life today,” also notes that his immigrant parents are “wary of my involvement in such political activities.” And businessman Marvin Zeidler, co-owner of the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica and one of the business owners who campaigned against the local living-wage law, was shocked to learn that those out on street corners agitating in favor of the law were fulfilling university requirements. “I had no idea they used students,” he says. “As a taxpayer in California, I am funding the UC system. This is not the kind of activity I want to fund.”

Perhaps academe’s most important weapons in support of union causes are the reports that labor centers industriously churn out on subjects key to the labor movement’s legislative agenda, especially free trade, globalization, living-wage legislation, and poverty. These reports, with their veneer of academic objectivity, appear to provide scholarly, objective, scientific proof of labor’s most cherished contentions. But the reports, rarely dispatched to peer-reviewed journals, are mere propaganda. To read these “studies,” touted in the press as nonpartisan, is to realize just how endangered in today’s university are such notions as disinterested scholarship and inquiry after the truth.

For example, when nonprofit social services groups in Detroit complained that the city’s new living-wage law forced them to raise salaries and cut services, Wayne State’s labor center rushed out a study claiming that the law had little impact on such organizations—though subsequently one of the area’s key nonprofits, the Salvation Army, withdrew from several contracts with the city of Detroit because of the law. The study became a powerful tool for advocates in other cities considering living-wage legislation to raise the minimum pay of workers in companies with city contracts. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist reported that fears that a proposed local law would harm nonprofits were overblown; after all, “Despite the same dire predictions by opponents that Detroit’s living-wage law would force nonprofits to close or curtail services and cause layoffs, the [Wayne State] study found that only 20 percent of the nonprofits faced significant financial obstacles.” The story not only failed to mention the experience of the Salvation Army but also neglected to point out that Wayne State’s labor studies program is closely aligned with the living-wage movement, that the department acknowledges providing “direct technical support” to living-wage campaigns, or that one of the authors of the Detroit study, David Reynolds, is a former union organizer and co-author of a guide on how to mount successful campaigns to pass living-wage legislation.

Nevertheless, labor-friendly politicians regularly invoke the academic authority of these reports. During debates over San Francisco’s living-wage laws, the president of the city’s board of supervisors—the law’s chief proponent—touted a UC Berkeley study claiming that the proposed law would have little financial impact on the economy or municipal government. The Berkeley department that sponsored the study, the Institute of Industrial Relations, is a labor-friendly entity, whose official list of living-wage “resources” for Californians only mentions groups that support living-wage laws; the report’s author is a member of a group of radical political economists whose theories are far outside the free-market mainstream. A later, nonpartisan study, commissioned by the San Francisco City Council and conducted by economists from San Francisco State University, concluded that the proposed law would cost vastly more than the UC Berkeley study estimated.

Not only tendentious, these reports often trample on even more basic rules of scholarship, including the prohibition against presenting someone else’s work as your own. As the business-backed Employment Policies Institute points out, not only do dozens of studies on the living wage’s effects in cities around the country reach the same conclusions; many use virtually the same language. A study by Florida International University’s labor center argues that living-wage laws make businesses better performers, because higher salaries attract and retain better workers. “One would expect county contractors, after passage of a living-wage ordinance, to become the ‘Cadillac’ firms in their industries,” the study says. In strikingly similar terms, a Wayne State report on the subject says: “It would be expected the living wage law would encourage contractors and firms using city financial assistance to become the premier firms in their industries.” And then both reports go on to say, in the exact same language: “They should attract and keep the best workers, have the most productive workforce and, over time, deliver the highest quality of services.” In the academia of yore, such borrowing of judgments, ideas, and language without direct attribution could doom a scholar’s career.

And yet, incredibly, what passes for scholarly research in labor studies programs can get even shoddier than this. Out of some $6 million that the state legislature recently allocated to the University of California’s Institute for Labor and Employment for research on working-class issues, $12,000 went to finance training of local union workers to create “dossiers of data on major property owners and investors” to fight gentrification and “slumlordism,” $25,000 went to a study “to develop models for mobilizing and organizing” young workers, $15,000 went to a study of campaigns that successfully fight privatization of welfare services, and $7,000 went to study how unions are fighting the effects of globalization in California’s ports. Concludes George Mason University economics professor James Bennett, editor of the Journal of Labor Research: “There’s no way you can legitimately call union organizing ‘research.’ ”

Not that labor studies programs are shy about dropping the mask of scholarship and engaging in propaganda, pure and simple. The labor program at UMass Lowell, for instance, uses its website to disseminate “action alerts” about local union campaigns, warning that a union local is under attack from a movie theater chain or imploring readers to assist an organizing effort at a local supermarket chain by downloading a form letter to send to the chain’s president. The labor studies program at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, sponsors intensely partisan radio programs, dubbed “Heartland Labor Forum.” Billed as examinations of workplace and economic issues, the incendiary shows, prepared by local union members, bear titles like: “Speak Out on Corporate Greed,” “The New Tyranny of George III: Union Busting Executive Orders,” and “Privatization: Will Bush Open the Floodgates?”

It’s easy to view what has happened at labor studies programs as simply one more manifestation of disturbing trends within the larger academy over the last few decades: the victory of advocacy over the disinterested pursuit of knowledge, the abandoning of standards, the ascendance of race and gender politics, the growth of anti-Americanism. And, giving credence to that idea, labor studies programs, from CUNY’s Queens College to UMass Boston to Washington State’s Evergreen State College, took a highly conspicuous role in leading campus opposition to the recent war in Iraq.

But something also sets the labor studies phenomenon apart from the campuswide culture wars. Unlike gender studies or race studies, labor studies undeviatingly promotes the interests of a remarkably tiny constituency: the union movement, representing a minuscule 13 percent of America’s private-sector workers and about 35 percent of public employees. It’s an amazing coup for organized labor and its allies to have tapped so brilliantly into the campus culture wars for their own narrow purposes. Set amid the larger battles within universities, it’s a coup that also has gone largely unnoticed by traditional academics, businesses, the media, and the taxpayers whose dollars support this agenda.

Back in the sixties and seventies, when labor bosses were culturally conservative, supported pro-growth policies, and sent their hardhats to battle long-haired students over the war in Vietnam, who would ever have thought the day would come when union leaders would co-opt the professors?

Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.




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