The Universities of California at Berkeley and Los Angeles are crown jewels of the state’s academic system. For California labor unions, these schools are equally important — but for reasons that have less to do with academic rigor and more to do with ideology.
Meet the Labor Centers of UCLA and UC Berkeley. Funded through a combination of taxpayer dollars and labor union largesse, and with advisory boards chock full of labor leaders, the centers essentially operate as the research arm of the state’s powerful union interests.
Their influence will only grow stronger in the years ahead.
State legislators allocated $13 million to the labor centers in the most recent state budget — the “largest allocation of funding for labor research and education in the nation in decades.”
The labor centers’ conflicts of interest are manifest: They regularly produce research to support the policy priorities of labor unions and labor-friendly legislators, who help ensure the centers continue to receive taxpayer support. Last summer, the Berkeley Labor Center thanked Sen. Maria Elena Durazo for helping secure a permanent funding increase for its work — even as Labor Center research was being used to support passage of a bill the senator carried in the state Senate.
Progressive policymakers in California and other states frequently rely on the “research” of the labor centers and their various affiliated research units, whose scholars have never met a business mandate they didn’t approve of. This occasionally leads to embarrassing outcomes.
In 2017, for instance, Seattle’s then-Mayor Ed Murray was desperate for a report to demonstrate the wisdom of his city’s $15 minimum wage.
After a city-commissioned team of researchers previewed data that didn’t match the mayor’s desired political outcome, he turned to Berkeley to supply a better result.
In an incredible sequence of events documented in public records, Berkeley economist Michael Reich rushed to produce a report to discredit the city’s own research team before its report could be released.
The city’s alt-weekly put it this way in a headline: “The City Knew the Bad Minimum Wage Report Was Coming Out, So It Called up Berkeley.”
Academic rigor is in apparent short supply in the Seattle emails, and in other public records that document the workings of the labor centers and their affiliated research units. And yet, as labor unions in California grow more-aggressive in their demands, the prominence of the labor centers continues to grow.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in the fight over AB 257, the so-called FAST Recovery Act. Developed by the SEIU as a means to organize the fast-food industry and undermine the franchise business model, the act creates a series of councils with unique power to regulate wages and working conditions of chain restaurants.
The SEIU had a problem, though: State data showed that fast-food restaurants had one of the lowest rates of labor law violations, undermining the rationale to single them out for special treatment.
Unbowed, the unions turned to the labor Centers to produce a series of reports with a common goal: Create a justification, however flawed, for the FAST Recovery Act.
One set of emails, obtained by my organization through public records requests, demonstrates how the union used its own organizers to obtain data on the alleged “working conditions” in the fast food industry. No matter that this “data” was at odds with the state’s own enforcement numbers.
The final report was stamped with the UCLA Labor Center brand, applying university-level credibility to an advocacy report prepared in partnership with the SEIU. Labor has big plans for its taxpayer-funded Labor Centers.
As described in a press release from Berkeley’s center, the state’s $13 million budget line “allocates funds to seed and develop a robust network of labor centers at UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara, UC Santa Cruz and UC San Diego.”
The Riverside allocation is noteworthy, given the recent outrage over another research center there: The Center for Economic Forecasting and Development. Operated by the consultancy Beacon Economics, the Center for Economic Forecasting and Development has developed a regional and statewide reputation for its credible forecasts and economic analysis.
Last year, the center extended its expertise to analyze AB 257, concluding that the sharp increase in labor costs caused by the legislation would cause a sharp increase in food prices.
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This uncontroversial finding nevertheless angered the SEIU’s allies, who recently responded to the report by organizing a petition to “investigate” the center. The union logic is clear: If you’re a labor-funded research center, you’re doing historic work in the service of the state’s working people. If you’re a business-supported research center at the same school — well, there must be a scandal afoot.
The hypocrisy is maddening, and so are the real-world consequences. The bad policy ideas advanced by the Labor Centers’ reports continue to damage the state’s business owners and employees.
One franchisee for a quick-service chain described the stakes: “The restaurant industry in California has been my life ever since my father immigrated here 31 years ago and saved every penny to open his first Burger King franchise in Santa Ana. … But our dream, as well as those of countless other small business owners in California, is under attack by pending legislation — AB 257…”
California deserves better — and so do the taxpayers whose money is funding Big Labor’s biased centers.
Mike Saltsman is executive director at the Employment Policies Institute.