David Bacon Stories & Photographs

By David Bacon
CFT Perspectives, 2/08

The Dolores Huerta Labor Institute is not your average labor studies program. In fact, many of the common elements of community college programs – stewards’ and leadership training, costing a union contract or how to run meetings – are not part of its curriculum. In part, this is the case because some campuses in the huge Los Angeles Community College system, like LA Trade Tech, already offer them. But the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute has a different vision.

“We want to let the people of LA know what it means to be a working person,” says John Delloro, institute director. “Corporations have gained so much power in our world, and we need our students to take a look at that.” That’s an ambitious goal for a system with 130,000 students. A year after its inauguration, the institute has made important progress towards it.

A team of supporters, including the Los Angeles Community College Faculty Guild, AFT Local 1521, the Los Angeles County Labor Federation, the UCLA Labor Center and the labor studies program at Trade Tech cooperated in finding the necessary support. With a matching grant agreement from the community college board, they raised pledges of $200,000 per year for three years.

After the kickoff in March of last year, Delloro became DHLI’s first director. The organizing group wanted someone with both academic and labor credentials. Delloro started with the huge culinary union in Las Vegas, then became a regional manager for the California State Employees (SEIU Local 1000), and finally worked at staff director for SEIU Local 399 on the union’s campaigns to organize workers at the Tenet and Catholic Healthcare West hospital chains. Delloro also had a degree in Asian American studies, and taught labor history at Trade Tech through the years he worked on union staff. “I never let go of the classroom,” he says.

Delloro’s strategy has been to integrate labor or working-class themes into the curriculum across many disciplines, and all nine campuses. In their first outreach efforts, the institute reached 1278 students and 53 faculty in a seven-week period. Delloro met one-on-one with faculty on all nine campuses, and identified 52 instructors interested in bringing labor studies into their classes.

It was not easy. “There’s not a lot of knowledge out there about labor studies,” he explains. “Some people thought I was a propaganda arm for unions, and questioned whether we’d take a rigorous approach to their disciplines. I tried to explain that we wanted to look at the conditions and history of working people through the perspective of all the subjects taught in community college.”

In English 101 students in one class were asked to write about working people. In history they were urged to consider the moments when labor played in role in social and political events. “Having a labor perspective in courses is actually part of academic freedom,” Delloro says.

It is also a practical way of reaching community college students, he believes, many of who work, and who are only on campus for limited periods of time. “We’re trying to recreate a culture on campus, and make it relevant to the workplace,” he says.

The nascent program also decided to concentrate on making resources available to participating faculty, and 36 instructors came together to make a plan a series of speakers on campuses. They invited people like Karen Brodkin, author of Making Democracy Matter, who spoke about her study of the labor movement. Patrick Finn from the State University of New York talked about the way the educational system produces social inequality.

In addition to recognized academics, the speaker series featured workers who described conditions in the health care industry, or their organizing efforts at Los Angeles International Airport, LAX. A timely (and heated) healthcare panel including representatives of the California Nurses Association and the Service Employees discussed the governor’s health care reform proposal with a representative of the governor’s office. Dolores Huerta, founder of the United Farm Workers, for whom the institute was named, gave a speech, and the Multi-ethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network (MIWON) and other organizers of the big immigrant rights marches came as well.

Another important resource for faculty has been the Southern California Library, a repository for materials documenting the social and political movements of the L.A. area. The library agreed to make primary research materials about Los Angeles labor history available for use in the classroom.

Two labor sociologists, Mike Davis and Nelson Lichtenstein, proposed bringing a group of labor scholars together for a retreat to discuss ways of strengthening the institute’s program. In October 80 scholars and community college faculty gathers in the larges such meeting in Los Angeles history. Delloro used small breakout sessions, mixing the disciplines of participants, to discuss ideas for labor-themed curricula. Unions gave presentations about cutting-edge organizing efforts. “We want to connect the classes to what’s happening in the outside world,” Delloro emphasizes. “We want students to see real campaigns and movements.”

Over the year, the DHLI staff grew to include Kennedy Lee, who left a high-paying job as a lawyer to do work she considered politically and socially important. Another part time staff member was hired to raise more funds from unions.

With more resources, this year the institute hopes to expand what it can offer faculty. Delloro spent several weeks combing through reams of materials to assemble a primer on teaching labor studies. It has been distilled into a manual that will be divided into sections. One, on economics for working people, will include one-page sheets with diagrams showing how the Los Angeles economy is structured, comparing U.S. living standards with other countries and productivity with wages, dramatizing the pay of corporate executives, and describing the distribution of union members in the county.

Another section will deal with unions themselves. Short pieces will give accurate definitions, describe different models of representation, show how unions are structured, and discuss the development of community-based workers’ centers like those for Los Angeles’ day laborers, domestic employees, and garment workers. Materials to aid faculty, with suggestions about how to teach labor-themed material in the classroom, reading and film lists, and web links will also be included.

The manual will be posted online at the end of February. Initially it will be available to faculty who have made a commitment to using it, but eventually it will be accessible to anyone. “The whole purpose of this is to encourage faculty to integrate labor studies into their classes,” Delloro says.

Soon, however, the Institute plans to begin offering classes on its own. This has required negotiating a complex and time-consuming process to gain accreditation for them, but they hope to start this coming fall, first at East L.A. Community College. Courses in planning, which will satisfy the social studies requirement, include:

* Labor History I, from the colonial period to reconstruction;

* Labor History II, from reconstruction to the present;

* Sociology of Labor, looking at class issues through social theory;

* California Literature and Labor, using labor-themed literary texts;

* Labor Studies 4, an introductory survey of labor studies; and

* World History of Working People.

At Harbor College, labor themes were integrated last year into two special tracks of the Program for Accelerated College Education. PACE offers a special program to people who work during the day, with evening classes at the workplace and special events on weekends. Students can complete their general requirements in two and a half years. One PACE program took place at the union hall of Local 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and the other at Kaiser Hospital in Harbor City. Students took a tour of the harbor guided by the Harry Bridges Institute, examining how globalization impacts the Los Angeles economy. Another tour focused on the labor history of the city.

The Dolores Huerta Labor Institute also set up a special internship program under the umbrella of Union Summer for community college students. Ninety-three students applied for five positions. Those selected were paid about $300/week for the whole summer, and worked with two SEIU locals, 721 (a public workers union) and United Healthcare Workers West. They participated in organizing drives, even staying overnight in hotels, giving them a chance to see the work of union organizers at close quarters.

The institute has a MySpace page with contact information, YouTube clips, and lots of comments and announcements from students and supporters: click here

Disclosure: the author was one of the speakers in the Harbor College program, presenting text and photographs about the links between globalization and U.S. immigration policy.

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