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2004 Annual Meeting . . . Public Sociologies

Public Sociology and UC’s Institute on Labor and Employment

The first in a series of articles highlighting the sociological context of ASA’s next Annual Meeting location . . . San Francisco, California

by Sarah Anne Minkin, University of California-Berkeley

Public Sociology is the theme of this summer’s Annual Meeting in San Francisco. While many of us are familiar with it in theory, what does it look like in practice? What are its challenges, dilemmas and unique advantages? One place to look for answers is the Institute on Labor and Employment (ILE), a University of California multi-campus research program that engages scholars and labor movement staff and activists in studying issues of labor and employment in California and the United States.

ASA President Michael Burawoy, instigator of this Annual Meeting theme, believes that public sociology is the discipline’s “moral moment,” when sociologists engage a public beyond the academy, bringing their tools and expertise to dialogue on issues affecting society as a whole. Society benefits from sociology’s insights and wisdom, and sociology gains from the critical feedback and challenges it faces when its ideas are aired in public. The ILE espouses this model, working closely with the labor movement to develop and execute its agenda. An interdisciplinary institution, the ILE is heavily weighted with sociologists, including its current and upcoming directors, Ruth Milkman, Professor of Sociology at UCLA and Margaret Weir, Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the UC Berkeley.

Labor Is Growing

The ILE’s development comes at a time of renewed sociological interest in labor, as evidenced by the founding of the Labor and Labor Movements Section at the ASA three years ago and the slew of recent new books on labor. The California labor movement, which directly represents millions of members and advocates for millions more people beyond its membership, is in a period of particular political strength. In the past few years they have increased their numbers by the tens of thousands, secured passage of ‘living-wage’ ordinances throughout the state, and succeeded in getting California’s unprecedented Paid Family Leave Law passed. Determining that they needed additional intellectual resources to advance their work, labor advocates helped push the establishment of the ILE through the state legislature in 2000.

The ILE is unique as an academic institution with close ties to labor; Tom Rankin, President of the California Labor Federation, sits on the governing council. The close working relationship with the labor movement is essential to ILE’s success as both an innovation in academia and a resource to a major social movement. As Ruth Milkman explains, “it’s a two-way process. The labor movement figured out that they need additional intellectual resources to counter the sophistication of managerial opposition to unions today.” The ILE’s research gives organized labor a “better basis for advocating for changes” in public policy, says Tom Rankin. Moreover, he continues, the ILE offers organized labor “the same access to academic resources that businesses and especially agriculture here in California have had for decades.” And for scholars, the ILE presents “an incredible opportunity to get inside a social movement that’s working for social justice,” says Milkman.

With an initial $6-million budget, the ILE is the only institution in the country of its magnitude dedicated to bridging academic research and the labor movement. As a research institution, ILE’s collaborative model bridging fieldwork and scholarship is new. It builds on the foundation of the Institutes of Industrial Relations (IIR) and Labor Centers at UC-Berkeley and UCLA. The IIR was founded in the 1940s to help solve labor issues with science. Labor Centers (formally, Centers for Labor Research and Education, also at UC-Berkeley and UCLA) were established in the 1960s to serve as the university’s outreach into the labor community, bringing material and intellectual resources to the movement. The ILE now works with both the IIRs and the Labor Centers, having dramatically increased the Labor Centers’ budgets. With new support, the Labor Centers have expanded their work, which includes building organizing partnerships with unions and providing them with training and support. Through the Labor Centers, outreach into the labor community is an integral part of the ILE’s mission, indivisible from its academic objectives.

Beyond the Ivory Tower

The ILE’s premier research project is The State of California Labor, an annual assessment of the labor movement, the economy, and trends in employment, legislation, and education. Published by the University of California Press, the publication aims to be accessible beyond academia. According to the 2003 volume, the California labor movement is growing in members and expanding in density, contrary to the decline apparent in the rest of the country. The volume includes Ruth Milkman’s and Daisy Rooks’ analysis of the ILE-sponsored California Union Census, a detailed survey of all local unions that measures union density by sector, industry, and demographics. The volume also focuses on trends and innovations in union organizing, legislative innovation affecting labor, employment patterns of immigrants, and links between higher education and employment outcomes, which includes an assessment of the impact of recent legislation that effectively restricts access to higher education to certain segments of the population.

Beyond The State of California Labor, the ILE funds UC faculty, academic staff, and graduate students studying labor and employment. Sociologists receive a large percentage of the grants, though much of the work is interdisciplinary. Ongoing conferences allow scholars and union staff and leaders opportunities to share their work, and specific conferences highlighting graduate student research help nurture a new generation of labor scholars. To meet the challenge of bringing its research to a more general public, the ILE held its first major media briefings over Labor Day, 2003, to announce the release of the latest State of California Labor and draw attention to other research findings on health care and labor.

Recent research grants include projects such as Kim Voss’ and Marshall Ganz’ study of leadership trends and organizational change in labor unions and Neil Fligstein’s and Ofer Sharone’s analysis of work in California’s postindustrial economy. Additional grants focus on topics that range from enforcement of wage and hour laws to links between local and global struggles such as those focused on transnational trade patterns and pacts. Some research is initiated at the request of unions. For instance, the UC-Berkeley Labor Center commenced an in-depth case study of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Union’s relationship with youth workers after the UFCW experienced an organizing setback due to lack of youth support.

In addition to the research and outreach of the Labor Centers, the ILE launched a new project this year, the California Union Leadership School. Designed together with the California Labor Federation, the school offers top elected union leaders and staffers an intensive, seven-day residency program of strategic planning and management training. UC faculty and union practitioners gave trainings and classes using traditional and popular education techniques, working hand-in-hand with the labor leaders to build their capacity to address the challenges unions face.

Getting Noticed

Not everyone is pleased to see public scholarship working with this particular “public.” As a testament to its success, in the past few months the ILE earned a place on the conservative agenda’s “hit list” and has been targeted in the media and the state legislature with attempts to de-fund it. California’s new governor may likely try to terminate the ILE. It was the California labor movement’s political power that pushed the ILE’s establishment through the state legislature in 1999; the question remains as to what lengths Labor might need to go to ensure the ILE’s continued existence in light of Schwarzenegger’s threats to the labor agenda.

Sociology piqued the interest of some of today’s Californian labor leaders with the issues of power, capitalism, and labor when they were young. Some labor leaders are alumni of UC-Berkeley’s Labor Center leadership training program of the late 1960s. Decades later, the ILE is giving scholars and union leaders the opportunity to work together again. As perhaps the largest entity in the nation linking a social movement and an interdisciplinary academic institution, the ILE offers a model and a challenge for sociologists and scholars who want to serve a larger public. Want to learn more? Do not miss Ruth Milkman’s panel at August’s Annual Meeting: “Rebuilding the California Labor Movement: Achievements and Prospects,” in which key California Labor actors will report on their work and, surely, offer a comment or two about the role academics can play in strengthening it.