The Truth About Taxpayer Funded State University “Labor Institutes”

0 August 31, 2009  School Construction, Uncategorized

Most of the academic “studies” published in support of Project Labor Agreements (PLAs) are produced by state university “labor institutes” with close connections to labor unions and convenient funding from taxpayers.  One of the most notorious is the University of California Labor Institute, established in 2000 at the behest of the California Labor Federation.  This taxpayer-funded propaganda mill has produced two phony studies in support of PLAs.

The August 31 print edition of the San Jose Mercury-News has an op-ed I wrote about a politically-driven $4 million budget diversion scheme to the UC Labor Institute, as revealed through 140 pages of internal documents obtained from the UC Office of the President through a California Public Records Act investigation.  A link to the op-ed is here:

Opinion: UC system shouldn’t have to fund labor institute – San Jose Mercury News

The documents reveal how Attorney General Jerry Brown, Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg, and Assembly Speaker Karen Bass pressured University of California officials to divert $4 million of scarce funding to a Labor Institute at the Berkeley and UCLA campuses after the governor vetoed $5.4 million for the institute in the first 2008-09 budget agreement.  The collection of documents includes frank email exchanges among top university officials upset about satisfying these politicians’ demands by depriving other programs of funding.

How Has the University of California Labor Institute Promoted PLAs?

In late 2001, a UC graduate student produced an amateurish paper under the labor institute name that promoted PLAs for construction projects.  The study, with its obviously pre-conceived conclusion, was supposed to support a proposed PLA sought by state construction unions and soon-to-be-recalled Governor Gray Davis for the construction of the new University of California campus at Merced.  Unions provided the study to the Merced Sun-Star newspaper, which published an editorial that dismissed the study as flawed.

Ultimately the campus was built without a PLA.  Undeterred by their defeat at UC Merced, construction union bosses throughout the state’s major metropolitan areas began distributing the study with the University of California seal on the cover as “evidence” to local governments that PLAs were good public policy.  “It’s from a university. Written by a doctor!” one union official proudly announced as he presented the study during a city council meeting in the San Francisco area.

In February 2008, the Board of Commissioners for the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency voted for a PLA to cover future construction.  The PLA was part of a so-called “Construction Careers and Project Stabilization Policy.”  Just before the vote, the taxpayer-funded University of California Labor Institute released a report entitled “Helping L.A. Grow Together: Why the Community Redevelopment Agency Should Adopt the Construction Careers Policy.”

Bottom Line: Do Studies Really Matter Anyway?

Both supporters and opponents of PLAs have a tendency to overemphasize the importance of studies in their strategies to promote or fight PLAs at local governments.  A general rule of thumb regarding studies is that the more distant someone is from the frontline fight over PLAs, the more that person believes that studies can boost their cause.  It is true that decisions made in the United States Congress are usually justified with a plethora of studies, examples, and arguments from Washington, D.C. think tanks and organizations, where highly educated individuals spend their careers justifying their ideology with facts, figures, and theoretical and real-life examples.

But elected officials of local governments rarely make decisions on issues that invite studies or intellectual proposals – their business is much more immediate and personal, and decisions are made on anecdotes or the views of the people they have strong relationships with in their communities.  While some ABC chapters have used studies to their benefit and even claim that studies were key to deterring or defeating of a PLA proposal, local elected officials in California rarely cite a study as a reason to support or oppose a PLA.

Editor’s Note: For more information about Big Labor’s think tanks, read Steve Malagna’s 2003 piece, “Union U” which appeared in the Summer 2003 edition of the City Journal – a quarterly publication of the Manhattan Institute.

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