IRLE Updates - Letter from the Director
Dear friend of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment,
With Seattle's $15 minimum wage in the headlines and active discussion of following suit in other cities, including Los Angeles, it's critical to broaden the agenda to acknowledge that raising the minimum wage is just a first step in fixing structural problems in US labor markets. One of the major strategic directions of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) is to make low-wage work better. In our role of "think-and-do tank," the "do" part is prominent. IRLE's Labor Center staff and Labor Studies students have provided technical assistance to the Clean Carwash Campaign, in which some of Los Angeles's worst-treated workers have rocketed from 3 union contracts last year to over 30 this year. Labor Center experts have helped the Los Angeles Wage Theft Coalition propose stronger legislation and strategies to stem the wage theft epidemic that costs Los Angeles workers over $26 million a week in wage and hour violations. A May LA Times editorial cited Labor Center research showing that only 17% of winning California wage claims result in repayment, and joined the Coalition's call for legislation giving workers the ability to place a lien on an employer's assets when filing a claim. I'm proud that as the Labor Center celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, its work is more relevant than ever.
And of course, low-wage workers' problems don't end with wages. On May 1, IRLE's Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (LOSH) commemorated the roughly 5000 workers in the US (2 million worldwide!) who die from work-related injuries every year, joining the LA May Day immigrant rights march with images of California workers who died on the job in the last year and laying symbolic coffins on the steps of City Hall. LOSH also co-convened a national gathering of researchers and trainers on workplace disaster response. UCLA Urban Planning students and community-based practitioners in the Community Scholars program, cosponsored by Urban Planning, IRLE, and the Labor Center, worked with three LA low-income communities on a "clean up/green up" campaign to develop jobs that are healthier for workers and communities (their impressive final report will soon be online). IRLE's Human Resource Round Table has expanded its membership from senior HR executives to an Associate Membership group encompassing high potential mid-level HR managers-which has now grown to 22 Associates-and recently organized a briefing for the new Associates on "Building Employee Engagement".
"Think" is the other part of the equation, and thinking threads through all the programs I have just described, as well as more scholarly discussions. In my last letter, I described IRLE's February "Race, Labor, and the Law" conference, which took an in-depth look at how race and gender stratify the workplace, including research on incarceration and labor, intimate and sexual labor, and new legal and organizing strategies to improve low-wage work. In March, the Labor Center hosted the annual conference of the United Association for Labor Education, the premier gathering of the nation's labor educators, on a theme of "Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class". IRLE sponsored an April talk by economist Dean Baker, one of the most prominent progressive economic voices in Washington, on his book Getting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working People. IRLE's Labor and Workplace Studies Minor, which hit a new enrollment high of 112 this year, offered UCLA undergrads far-ranging courses on worker center organizing, immigrant rights, urban schools, and other topics, with opportunities for hands-on involvement on these issues. I and others also regularly translate these ideas to broader publics through media interviews; in my case recent interviews include comments on why the poverty line is obsolete for the Marketplace radio show and on the new drive for higher minimum wage levels for local NPR affiliate KPCC and other outlets, even including a newspaper in Chile!
Beyond chatting with Chilean reporters, the Institute continues to take these discussions global in more systematic ways. We launched a new, more informal event format, IRLE Dialogues, with a panel of IRLE Visiting Scholars Xiaohui Ban (China), Tomo Shimanuki (Japan), and Jen Nazareno (US) discussing problems and possible solutions of "nonstandard" work in their three countries. We hosted a number of talks by global labor scholars, including Johns Hopkins professor Rina Agarwala discussing her book Informal Labor, Formal Politics, and Dignified Discontent in India. Agarwala is part of the 8-country Experiences Organizing Informal Workers research network organized by IRLE. She, I, and several others from the network have organized sessions on these topics at the upcoming International Sociological Association Congress in Yokohama.
The UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment will celebrate our seventieth anniversary next year. As wages and living standards for most working Americans have stagnated in recent decades, our work has focused increasingly on understanding low-wage jobs and developing effective ways to improve them. Our website is chock-full of research and video archives of past events, and you can join our email list to find out about new reports, upcoming events, and IRLE news. University of California support only covers our core operations, so to sustain our efforts to make low-wage work better, we need your financial support. Click the Donate button today to help us build a better tomorrow for working people. And enjoy your summer!
Professor of Urban Planning and Sociology
Director, UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment