The downtown office of the UCLA Labor Center sits on the northwest edge of MacArthur Park, where geese mingle amid the tents of homeless people. It is late fall, and Victor Narro, the downtown office director and a law professor, is inside printing reports written by his students about how to regulate and decriminalize the city’s extensive informal economy of sidewalk and street vending. Between 12,000 and 20,000 Angelenos, predominately immigrants from Central and South America, sell food and other goods on city streets. Police regularly harass them, confiscate their property, and slap them with fines of up to $500.
“They’re just people trying to make a living,” Narro says. This morning he joins some 150 vendors, community members, trade unionists, and high school students at the City Council to support decriminalizing these small businesses. There, with scores of vendors giving testimony, he submits the reports into the public record.
This kind of activism lacks the familiarity of the picket line and boycott, but is no less militant. Several of the vendors in the hearing room are mothers with their children. “We are not criminals,” one tells the council members. The meeting is one measure of the role Los Angeles labor plays in the local immigrant rights movement, at a time when most unions struggle just to survive. While union density nationally has sunk to around 11 percent, 15 percent of the workforce, or about 1.1 million workers, are union members in the Los Angeles-Long Beach metropolitan area. The UCLA Labor Center functions as a sort of policy and research think tank for the network of community nonprofits, legal advocacy groups, and strong unions that make up the city’s vibrant left. With collective bargaining effectively out of reach for many, institutions such as the UCLA labor center have been laboratories for discovering new ways to represent the American working class.
Beyond Los Angeles, however, similar university programs are enduring closures, downsizing, and legal challenges to their legitimacy as publicly funded institutions. As American labor searches for a viable strategy to endure and grow, its limited footholds in many state institutions of higher learning are coming loose.
“The work relationship has two sides,” explains Sarah Laslett, a professor who works at the labor center at the University of Oregon, “and the owner side of the employment relationship is much better resourced in higher education.” Schools like Laslett’s go by a variety of names—worker schools or labor centers are common—and they are predominantly housed in state univ...
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