UCLA Labor Center graduates 50 new activists for workers

LOS ANGELES – The labor studies program at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) is sending 50 new graduates this year into the labor force. The graduating class appeared to receive their diplomas at the annual banquet on May 19th this year, held at the conference center of the Roman Catholic Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles. The locale may simply have been a question of geographical convenience, or perhaps the Cathedral gave them a good rental, but either way, it underlined the longstanding support for the immigrant labor movement the Church has provided for decades, helping to make L.A. a premier labor center in the country.

The Labor Center has grown from a staff of three when it first started to its current staff of forty. Kent Wong, its director now in his 25th year with the Labor Center, opened the night with a bit of the center’s history. One item that deserved recognition was, of course, the city’s passage of a raise in the minimum wage (in stages) to $15 an hour.

The Labor Center also works to oppose wage theft, advance living-wage jobs, and forge partnerships between established unions and worker centers. The city’s first Black Worker Center received national recognition this year from President Obama during a worker summit in Washington, D.C. Lola Smallwood Cuevas, director of the Black Worker Center, opened the program, highlighting how it helps to connect and prepare black workers for life changing, good paying trade union jobs.

The Labor Center’s Dream Resource Center has helped to win historic health care access for undocumented youth in California. The Labor Center’s Victor Narro introduced the Dream Summer Alumni Interns.

In addition, the center has recently released three new publications: Nonviolence and Social Movements: The Teachings of Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.; Dreams Deported: Immigrant Youth and Families Resist Deportation; and I Am a #YOUNGWORKER: Retail and Restaurant Workers in Los Angeles.

Honorees for the night, besides all of the graduates, included newly elected California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who unfortunately was unable to attend in person, although he did make some video remarks. His Voice of the People Award was accepted by California Assembly member Ian Calderon.

Julie Su, California’s Labor Commissioner, received the Working-Class Hero Award. She was movingly introduced by Lynne Wang, a journalist who led a labor organizing campaign and was the lead plaintiff in a successful 10-year-long lawsuit against the now unionized Chinese Daily News.

Mike Garcia, President Emeritus of SEIU United Service Workers West, who organized the janitors in L.A.’s tall office buildings, received the Lifetime Achievement Award.

The Workplace Studies graduates were called up for their degrees by Gaspar Rivera-Salgado and Janna Shadduck-Hernández, staff members at the Labor Studies Center. Three of the graduates, Vanessa Moreno, Denise Panaligan and Juan Torres, gave short but interesting life stories. Also sharing her story was alumna Laura Sermeño.

The Labor Center places 300 student leaders and activists in internship programs each year. Everywhere they go in Los Angeles and throughout the state of California, they connect with former students and interns, many of whom have since taken on leadership positions in advancing social justice.

Some of the lead sponsors for the night were SEIU, UFCW 770, IBEW 11, IBT, AFSCME 3930, USW 675, and UAW Region 5, including representation by members of the National Writers Union. A host of nonprofit foundations and law firms serving the labor movement also contributed to the evening’s success. The servers at the hall were also unionized.

Over the decades, labor studies centers at public universities have been thorns in the side of right-wing politicians, who have continually tried to eliminate their budgets. So far it has not worked in California, every one of whose statewide elective offices is held by a Democrat, which may be a big reason the state is a leader in workers’ rights across the nation.

Photo: Awardees at the May 17 banquet. PW



Ismael Parra
Ismael Parra

Ismael Parra is the Southern California Chair of the National Writers Union, a musician, and writer. Ismael Parra es el presidente de la Unión Nacional de Escritores del Sur de California, músico y escritor.

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.