August 13, 2003
by Steve Malanga
Just when you thought our universities -- with their multiculti curricula, anti-Americanism and intolerance of debate -- couldn't possibly get any more partisan, along comes the next new thing: the labor movement's successful co-opting of academic departments and programs. For years, universities have offered courses in "labor studies," often taught by ardent labor activists. Since the mid-'90s, however, when the movement began to revive under AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney, these departments have defined their mission chiefly as supporting labor and its organizing efforts rather than educating students.
The nearly 50 such programs operating today churn out new initiatives in support of labor. In 1995, for instance, U-Mass at Amherst began an M.A. program in union leadership and administration -- in essence, a school for union leaders that is emblematic of the transformation of the labor studies field from a backwater of continuing education to postgraduate academic status. In the late '90s, the labor center at Wayne State University, working with the radical left-wing group Acorn, began providing technical support to living-wage campaigns around the country, 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 advance union causes. In 2001, the California legislature, in response to union lobbying, dedicated millions in state money that has gone for research supporting Big Labor positions.
Savvy labor leaders have forged close alliances with the modern university. The labor studies field's umbrella group, the United Association for Labor Education, now holds its annual "education" conference in conjunction with the AFL-CIO. The theme of this year's conference was "Building a Strong Grassroots Union Movement," and had profs participated in such workshops as "Grassroots Strategies to Support Labor's Political Agenda" and "Organizing Strategies for an Ever-Changing Workforce."
Although radical agendas have politicized course offerings in many university departments, labor studies is emerging as among the most blinkered of fields because of such close bonds. Today, labor programs state plainly that they exist primarily to promote unions and create a generation of activists. This emphasis on advocacy has turned the classroom into a soapbox, from which professors rail against what labor considers its biggest threats.
A course description for a class at Amherst declares that we live in "an era of crushing corporate power and aggressive opposition to unions." The course will teach students how to do "corporate research," examining companies for facts that unions can use to embarrass them, or to gain political leverage in contract negotiations. In the same spirit, the program sees financiers as a 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, "Common Sense Strategies for Workers," based on AFL-CIO curriculum materials.
These programs also draft students through internships to do labor's bidding, often against the interests of taxpayers. Interns at UCLA's labor program have helped unionize janitorial workers and campaigned for controversial legislation to force businesses in California municipalities, including 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, Amherst's intern program has supplied student organizers for campaigns to unionize garment workers and nurses.
Taxpayers don't necessarily share the academics' enthusiasm for such programs. Marvin Zeidler, co-owner of the Broadway Deli in Santa Monica and one of the business owners who campaigned against a local living-wage law, was shocked to learn that some of those out on street corners agitating in favor of the law were fulfilling course requirements. "As a [California] taxpayer, I'm funding the U.C. system. This isn't 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 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 proof of labor's most cherished contentions, even though the reports rarely appear in peer-reviewed journals. During debates over San Francisco's living-wage laws, the president of the city's board of supervisors touted a Berkeley study claiming that the proposed law would have little financial impact on the local economy or municipal government. A later, nonpartisan study, commissioned by the San Francisco City Council, concluded that the law would cost vastly more than the Berkeley study estimated.
Much of what passes for research here is little more than union organizing. Out of $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 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 supermarket workers; and $15,000 went to a study of campaigns that fight privatization of welfare services.
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It's easy to view what has happened at labor studies programs as one more manifestation of trends within the academy. But something sets labor studies apart. Unlike gender or race studies, labor studies undeviatingly promote the interests of a tiny constituency: the union. It's a coup for organized labor to have tapped into the campus culture wars for their own narrow purposes. And amid the larger battles within universities, it's a coup that has gone unnoticed.
Mr. Malanga is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, from whose Summer issue this is adapted.
©2003 The Wall Street Journal