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Progressives Lobby to Save UC Labor Think Tank From Governor’s Budget

Tuesday June 15, 2004

After temporarily being saved from total elimination, the UC Institute for Labor and Employment (ILE) is on the chopping block again as part of what institute employees say is an attack on labor rights and the interests of working people across California. 

Calling their department the only office in the University of California system dedicated to labor research, ILE employees expressed outrage last year when their operating budget was written out of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget. Because the ILE was the only UC department to be completely eliminated in the Schwarzenegger budget, the institute’s employees branded the cut a political attack. 

The ILE, which runs offices at UC Berkeley and UCLA, was given a temporary reprieve earlier this year when the university gave them operating money from its own budget. In the meantime, the ILE and their supporters successfully lobbied both houses of the state Legislature, eventually winning legislative approval for $3.8 million of the institute’s original $4 million budget. 

But before the money is guaranteed, it has to be approved by the governor, and ILE employees are rallying support to ensure Schwarzenegger comes through. 

“This is not a budget cut,” said Peter Olney, the director for the ILE office at UC Berkeley. “This is a clear political attack on an institution that has been there for the labor movement and the working people of California.”  

Since forming in 2000, the ILE has issued a number of reports concerning labor and California workers, many of which have made their way into important policy decisions made by the state. The ILE, while not the only public university labor think tank in the country, is the largest, according to Olney. 

And while unabashedly pro-labor, the ILE says that since its inception, it has been struggling to balance out a system that continues to fund pro-business think tanks across the country. 

According to Katie Quan, chairperson of the UC Labor Center at UC Berkeley, the service arm of the ILE, the institute was established in 2000 during a period when California’s budget was still operating with a comfortable surplus. Thanks to heavy lobbying by groups representing workers across the state, Quan said, ILE’s budget was approved by the Legislature and signed by then Gov. Gray Davis. But when the state economy began to nose-dive shortly afterwards, she said, the ILE began to suffer cutbacks. From 2000 to 2003, the institute’s operating budget was cut by 33 percent. 

“Schwarzenegger's elimination of the ILE set us back to where we were three years ago and widens the gap in funding between management education research and labor education research,” said Quan. 

ILE representatives said they were not sure whether Schwarzenegger directly negotiated the cuts to the ILE, but said it is well-known that his chief financial advisor and other finance staff members are both fiscally and politically conservative. 

Representatives form Schwarzenegger's finance office did not return calls about the ILE cuts. 

Among the issues that ILE research covers are living wage laws, work and family issues, immigrant workers, and the health care crisis. Each year, the institute publishes the “State of California Labor” report.  

Among the most recognized research and policy contributions the ILE has made since 2000 include work during the legislative debate over SB2, a bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Davis that requires businesses over a certain size to pay a significant portion of employee health benefits. The ILE released a report in the middle of the debate that showed widespread support for the bill among California employers, even though big business groups lobbied against it. It was a revelation that many said was crucial in getting the bill passed. 

The ILE has also recently released a report called “The Hidden Public Cost of Low-Wage Jobs in California.” The report documents the tax burden placed on California tax payers by low-wage employers who force their employees to rely on public assistance to stay afloat. According to the report, $10.1 billion of the $21.2 billion in public assistance allotted to low income families in 2002 went to families with at least one working adult, rather than for emergency assistance for families that are unable to find work. 

In particular, the report found that workers in the retail industry collectively received $2 billion in assistance, which is over twice the amount received by workers in any other state industry. According to Quan of the Labor Center, the report uncovered programs—such as the one run by Wal-Mart—that provide counseling to employees on how to receive public aid as a supplement to their wages. 

Those who rely on ILE research and reports such as the one on low-wage work, call it “imperative” to insure that they continue to have an operating budget. 

“This is an invaluable resource for working people of California,” said Nathan Ballard, the spokesperson for the California Labor Federation, the clearing house for all the unions in California. 

Ballard said the ILE’s contribution to the policy work done for and by the working people of California is “vital.”  

Several academics have also weighed in on the debate, calling the ILE cuts a threat to academic freedom. 

“The ILE was a fairly innovative attempt to try and bring more resources to the university to help us understand California workplaces, California families and how policy might improve each of these,” said David Levine, a professor at the UC Berkeley Haas School Of Business and one of several UC professors who has worked with the ILE. “It [the ILE] didn’t last very long, and I think its disappointing that the governor zeroed it out without the normal review process that academic institutions undergo.” 

According to Quan of the Labor Center, the budget proposal rescuing the ILE from extinction is in the governor’s office and will be decided upon within the next few days. t