Pat Greenfield, Dale Melcher and Harris Freeman: UMass Labor Center cuts a body blow 

  • The University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) campus

Published: 9/15/2016 8:03:51 AM


We just celebrated Labor Day to honor the contributions of labor and working people. It is ironic and disappointing that at this time of year, the UMass Amherst administration has taken steps that will undermine the viability of its Labor Center, the Commonwealth’s signature graduate program committed to research, teaching and service on behalf of workers and the labor movement.

The master’s degree offered by the Labor Center is unique, providing graduates with pathways to civic-minded careers advancing the rights of workers and their organizations, while tackling the intractable problems surrounding workplace inequality and low-wage work.

The UMass administration says it values the programs offered by the Labor Center. But under the guise of “restructuring” the center’s mission, the UMass administration has for years been withdrawing fundamental pillars of support for students pursuing an M.S. in Labor Studies, drastically reducing the number of research and teaching assistantships available to center students.

The policy has already caused a decline in the center’s enrollment. And, starting next year, the Labor Center will be unable to offer any work and tuition waivers to its students through research and teaching assistantships. Also to be eliminated are tuition waivers for hands-on externships that allow center students to work and learn at mission-based organizations while studying at UMass.

Removing these critical forms of student support, on top of an already reduced budget, makes effective student recruitment almost impossible because, unlike MBA graduates, most Labor Center grads do not make big money and cannot take on massive tuition debt to earn their degrees.

Even modest funding to hire specialized adjunct faculty to maintain the breadth of critical courses such as labor negotiations and labor law is on the chopping block.

These planned budget cuts also threaten the viability of the center’s Union Leadership and Administration Program (ULA), a limited-residency M.S. program for mid-career unionists, compromising the center’s ability to offer the range of courses needed by ULA students.

And if this program does survive, it cannot serve as a substitute for the center’s core residence-based M.S. program, because ULA includes neither the financial support needed by inexperienced young people preparing for the job market, nor does it provide the full-time academic program essential to preparing highly qualified graduates for jobs with the labor movement and labor-oriented institutions.

The Labor Center was founded in 1964 after AFL-CIO President George Meany came to campus and challenged the administration, noting that in higher education, the deck is stacked to favor educating students to understand business interests, not the concerns of working people. Meany called on UMass to level the playing field.

UMass took on the challenge, and established the Labor Center. For over five decades, those interested in social justice careers have attended the UMass residential master’s program in Labor Studies to acquire the knowledge, skills and experience needed to work for the labor movement, in government policy-making and for a wide range of non-governmental organizations. For over 50 years, this master’s degree has been a gateway to professional employment that matters. Each year, unions, government agencies and community-based organizations offer more jobs to Labor Center graduates then can be filled.

Indeed, few university programs can match the center’s close to 100 percent placement rate for its graduates. Despite decades of bare-bones funding, nearly 1,000 center graduates have had a major impact as organizers, researchers, educators, policy specialists and regulatory agency staffers. Alums lead the Boston Labor Council, the Massachusetts State Building Trades Council and NLRB regional offices and staff numerous state AFL-CIO affiliates.

They educate unionists and workers across the country. They serve as elected representatives – including a state legislator from western Massachusetts – and many have gone on to law and Ph.D. programs.

Everyone who believes that our institutions of higher learning should be relevant to the current debate on income inequality and the decline in the quality of life for working people should be concerned about the most recent steps that undermine the future and independence of the Labor Center.

While the center has weathered funding cuts and attacks in the past, the most recent actions – along with pressure put on the former activist director to resign – appear broader in in scope and more severe in impact than in the past. Looking past the empty rhetoric of administration support for the center, it is clear that if the latest financial and programmatic cuts are made, it will no longer be the vital resource it has been for over half a century, not only for the organized labor movement, but for everyone who values institutions that stand up for the rights of working people in the Commonwealth and beyond.

Pat Greenfield directed the UMass Labor Center from 1990-97. Dale Melcher is former director of its Extension Program and a center graduate. Harris Freeman is a long-term Labor Center adjunct faculty member and former member of  the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board.

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