UMass Labor Center reconsiders role amid new national landscape

  • Pamphlets on Cedric de Leon’s desk. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Cedric de Leon, left. director and associate professor at the Labor Center at UMass, meets with Julie Rosier, the manager of academic programs, about the logistics and programming for the UMass Labor Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/23/2018 12:36:12 AM

AMHERST — Two years ago, the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst appeared to be in deep trouble. After more than 50 years offering courses in labor studies, budget cuts left its future in doubt.

Supporters of the center rallied to the cause, and in December 2016 the university announced its aim to “revitalize” the nationally recognized program that educates its students — both traditional students as well as full-time workers — about issues such as collective bargaining and workers’ rights. 

The Labor Center is now two years into a three-year funding commitment from the university, and the center’s new director says that at a time of increasing attacks on organized labor, the program is more vital than ever.

“For the labor movement to rise from the ashes, there needs to be a recognition that the struggle for worker rights is inseparable from the struggle for women’s rights, the rights of people of color, queer folks,” Cedric de Leon, the Labor Center’s new director, told the Gazette. “What we try to do at the Labor Center is teach an intersectional vision of union solidarity that sees those different struggles as linked.”

The center was created in 1964 after then AFL-CIO President George Meany visited campus and encouraged the creation of a labor studies program. That was an era of increasing union membership across the nation. Since then, membership in labor unions has decreased dramatically.

But it is unclear whether the Labor Center’s new arrangement with the university will continue, or whether further negotiations are on the horizon, de Leon said.

In a statement, university spokesman Ed Blaguszewski called de Leon a “dynamic new leader,” adding that he has an ambitious plan to meet and exceed the goals the Labor Center and university set in 2016. 

Among those expected milestones laid out in 2016 were increasing the Labor Center’s undergraduate enrollment by at least 100 percent and having at least 12 new, full-time students per year in the center’s residential master’s program. Enrollment numbers provided by the Labor Center did not include figures for undergraduates, but showed more than a doubling of enrollment in the program’s limited residency program for full-time workers, as well as 17 students in the residential program.

“Progress so far has been more than satisfactory, and we are looking forward to the program’s continued success in uniquely preparing labor leaders for Massachusetts and throughout the country,” Blaguszewski said.

That preparation is something de Leon touted. In particular, he praised the center’s limited residency graduate program, which for more than 20 years has given full-time workers the opportunity to complete a master’s program by spending 40 days — 10 days in January and July for two years — getting all their necessary academic credit hours.

“These are regular working folks getting a master’s degree in labor studies,” de Leon said. “That one is really inspiring, because it’s not easy for a regular working person who works full time to get a master’s degree. That’s a really special program.”

Those optimistic tones from both the Labor Center and university are a far cry from the turmoil of 2016. That year, the center’s former director, Eve Weinbaum — now a professor in the center and the president of the faculty and librarian union at UMass — wrote an email lamenting budget cuts at the center. Her email was soon posted on several blogs, and more than 100 labor activists rallied in support of the Labor Center’s continued existence.

In an interview Wednesday, Weinbaum said she’s thrilled with two developments that have taken place since late 2016: the hiring of de Leon, and the collaboration between the university and the Labor Center to find creative ways to fund graduate students.

Part of that creativity was the university’s support of creating 12 graduate-student internships. The labor unions cover stipends for the internships, and the university provides a tuition waiver, Weinbaum said.

“That is huge, that means we have been able to keep up our tradition of educating working-class students,” Weinbaum said. “This is a chance for them to earn a master’s degree.”

Weinbaum said she is optimistic about the Labor Center’s future. She pointed to several upcoming new classes — “women and work,” for example, as well as “sports, labor and civil rights” — as potential draws for even more undergraduate students.

“This year and next year, we’re teaching more undergraduate classes than we’ve ever done before,” she said.

De Leon said the education the Labor Center provides is part of “an inclusive, alternative, progressive vision.”

“This isn’t your grandfather’s labor movement,” de Leon said. “Two generations ago, it was an industrial workforce; it was gender-segregated; most of the heavy manual union jobs were performed by white men … it’s not that anymore … it’s more diverse.”

Marginalized people have lots to gain from a strong labor movement, both economically and politically, de Leon said.

“When women and people of color are organized into unions, they become part of the public debate, and they work to make our democracy broader and more inclusive,” he said.

De Leon said the labor movement has to address its own issues, such as the history of excluding African-Americans and women, in order to be a relevant mass movement again. And de Leon does expect the labor movement to gain traction in this era of increasing inequality, despite attacks at the federal level to undercut unions.

“Any meaningful change in American society, and any meaning change that has happened at UMass, has happened because of collective struggle,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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