From left: Virginia Parks, professor of urban planning and public policy; Walter Nicholls, professor and chair of urban planning and public policy; and Sameer Ashar, clinical professor of law and director of UCI’s Workers, Law and Organizing Clinic, will lead the UCI Labor Center. “This new center is a way to raise up workers’ voices, to raise up issues that directly impact and affect them,” says Parks, the center’s academic director. Photo by Han Parker
Providing research, expanding education programs, advancing workers’ rights
The University of California, Irvine has opened a new campus center that will provide timely and policy-relevant labor research, will educate the next generation of labor and community leaders, and will advance labor and workers’ rights initiatives.
Modeled after existing centers at UCLA, UC Berkeley and UC Merced, the UCI Labor Center builds upon previous campus efforts to investigate low-wage worker sectors in Orange County. UCI’s School of Social Ecology and School of Law are partnering to oversee the new center, which aims to boost the power of working people in Orange County and beyond by promoting, defending and expanding workers’ rights.
Through research, advocacy, policy innovation, education and outreach, the center will support unions and worker organizations in their endeavors to create a fair and racially just worker-centered economy. Virginia Parks, professor of urban planning and public policy; Walter Nicholls, professor and chair of urban planning and public policy; and Sameer Ashar, clinical professor of law and director of UCI’s Workers, Law and Organizing Clinic, are leading the effort, and Parks is serving as the center’s academic director.
“We are excited to finally have this space on our campus. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that the conditions facing local workers are part of the statewide economic recovery conversation,” Parks said.
“This effort is consistent with the School of Social Ecology’s and the School of Law’s commitment and mission to turn university resources out to communities in need; to develop strong partnerships with community organizations; and to develop new ideas, new ways of thinking about how to maximize our social justice mission in Orange County,” Nicholls added.
Funding for the new UCI center was made possible by a historic allocation in California’s 2022-23 budget, passed last summer. It includes $13 million to expand such programs across the University of California system. UCI is receiving $1.5 million over three years for its center.
The UCI funding will pay students to work as part of Labor Summer, a full-time, eight-week internship program that pairs students with labor organizations. In addition, a director and an attorney will be hired to operate the center, and stipends will be awarded to doctoral students to support the interns and help create programming, which will include community organizing and education clinics on campus and in Santa Ana.
“Our students are coming from families that are struggling economically – many have been touched by union and community organizing campaigns – and are looking for ways to connect their own education to the people with whom they came up,” Ashar said. “Through the Labor Center, UCI students can find meaningful, compelling work connected to their own communities.”
The aim is to link UCI students directly to worker organizations through hands-on educational opportunities. “We will support up to 12 undergraduate and graduate students and four law students to participate in Labor Summer through full-time, paid internships,” Parks said.
In addition, the center will form an advisory board and collaborate with local labor unions and community-based workers’ rights organizations to develop timely research initiatives.
“Workers live everywhere, and we have a really dynamic labor movement in Orange County,” Parks said. “But workers in Orange County face a lot of challenges – high cost of living, lack of affordable housing and just a fair shake at work. This new center is a way to raise up workers’ voices, to raise up issues that directly impact and affect them.
“It also is an opportunity to work alongside worker organizations to solve workers’ problems, to make their jobs better, to make their working conditions better, to give them a voice at work, to amplify their voices in the broader political system and to connect organized labor to other community organizations that are all fighting for the same things: a better standard of living, affordable housing, paid sick leave – basic issues that affect all of us who support ourselves through work.”
Similar efforts to open new labor centers are underway at other UC campuses, thanks to the funding that was made possible through a collaboration of the California Labor Federation; key labor unions throughout the state; and elected officials including California state Sen. María Elena Durazo, California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, state Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins and state Assembly member Mike Fong.
To learn more about the UCI Labor Center, visit the website.
Faculty Spotlight: Virginia Parks
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