Labor studies, an interdisciplinary field in academia that examines workplace issues and worker organizations, reveals working conditions that motivate people to want to join a union. Much of the scholarship has illuminated the central role that labor’s decline has played in exacerbating income inequality. In doing so, the field has aroused the ire of anti-union companies and their allies. The field has never been a major force in academia and many centers have been gradually shuttered due to lack of funding or merged with other departments. Only a handful of universities currently offer a major or minor in labor studies. Faculty are often untenured, vulnerable to layoffs and budget cuts, and they are often not replaced when they retire.
“A fairly robust network of university-based labor studies and labor education programs have been under attack,” says Jennifer Sherer, former director of the University of Iowa Labor Center, which was almost eliminated in 2020 amid a firestorm of politically motivated attacks on unions in the state legislature. The center, which dates back to 1950, is known for education on worker rights when it comes to sexual harassment, health and safety violations, and wage recovery—and, according to Sherer, closing it would have saved “less than one-thousandth of one percent” of the university’s general education budget.
In California, the influential UCLA Labor Center—which conducted research on low-wage employment and led leadership development workshops—was targeted for elimination for years by Republican lawmakers and corporate power brokers. But allies successfully fought back and Gov. Newsom allocated $15 million last July to renovate the center’s historic building.
Last year, Veena Dubal, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law who researches gig work companies, became a target of an endless barrage of social media harassment, misinformation articles, and doxxing. The onslaught occurred while the state was debating Proposition 22, a controversial ballot initiative that allowed app-based ride-hailing and delivery companies like Uber and DoorDash to classify their workers as independent contractors. “It was very frightening,” she said. “The articles were awful, the targeted social media hate like every day, and it hasn’t totally stopped.”
It was a tense time, during which a coalition of gig work companies including Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and Instacart amped up their payments to the Yes on 22 campaign to hire public relations and political opposition research firms. The $200 million campaign mounted an aggressive advertising push—through email, mailings, and the apps themselves—to convince voters that drivers are well paid and prefer to be independent contractors and that the quality of service would decline if the measure were passed, though there is no evidence that the campaign included the harassment of Dubal.
“It used to be that in the early 20th century, industrialists hired Pinkertons—private security agencies—to spy on workers and advocates and organizers to undermine effective advocacy on behalf of working people,” said Dubal. “Then we moved into a stage where if you were advocating on behalf of working people, then you’re a communist. Today, in addition to red-baiting, which continues, there’s outright intimidation and harassment—it’s just an evolved form.”
Dubal was also subject to a complaint of illegal lobbying though she doesn’t accept any money for her advocacy work. Mark Bogetich of MB Public Affairs, a public relations firm hired by the campaign, filed a public records act request for months of Dubal’s emails and text messages, which the university handed over. Bogetich is an opposition research consultant who has done work for the tobacco industry and a number of Republican politicians.
This tactic has been used by right-wing organizations like the Freedom Foundation in Washington state. The foundation has filed Freedom of Information Act requests to target labor studies academics at public universities on the West Coast to try to find evidence that public money is being misused to promote unions.
Dubal said she was shocked to receive the request. “The nature of the request, including emails from me to myself, felt overbroad and intrusive—I felt targeted,” she said.
As for UC Hastings, Dubal said, “I have been lucky to have a very supportive dean, and my university did not in any way ask me to tone down my activism. That said, they are compelled by law to comply with the public records act request and did so.”
~ Veena Dubal, professor, UC Hastings College of the Law
Academics like Dubal argue that maintaining independent research in the field of labor studies is crucial for the public good. Often unions and other labor organizations do not have the resources necessary to fund such research.
“These companies have hired tons of economists and social scientists to create research that they can then use to justify the regulations that they seek. Those regulations are good for their bottom line, but they are not good for workers and they are not good for the general public,” Dubal said. “In the regulation of gig work, independent academic research has been integral to providing information to regulators to understand what is going on in a way that’s not shaped by the company’s own research and own narrative.”
While the onslaught has been overwhelming, Dubal said it has not had the intended effect. “If you try and prevent me from doing something, I’m likely going to be more determined to do it,” she said. As a tenured professor, her position is secure.
But she said she knows many researchers who don’t write about or research labor studies and other fields because they’re worried about such harassment by corporate interests. “It absolutely has a huge effect on what people study, what they say,” she said. “It has a huge impact. In many ways, I think that these companies, they’re not just looking to intimidate and harass me, they’re looking to make an example of me.”
While most have migrated online, such acts of intimidation used to be more in your face. For Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the first sign that something was not normal at a research conference she attended in the fall of 1992 came as soon as she arrived at the airport. As she opened the door to the car that was sent to pick her up, she was surprised to find the CEO of a management consulting firm waiting for her in the back seat.
He demanded to know what she was presenting and to see her data, she says. She deflected, saying that she hadn’t brought her data and didn’t have a presentation prepared. She held her bag closely, fearing he might try to take it. “I was a woman alone. It was very frightening,” she said. “He was furious.”
When Bronfenbrenner began research for her Ph.D. dissertation in the mid-’80s, she was surprised to discover that not much had been written about how businesses fight unionizing efforts. When she published her work, Bronfenbrenner immediately started to get calls from management consultants asking for her raw data. She declined, citing the need to protect her sources. Then the callers would get aggressive, threatening to complain to the president of her university.
The pressure reached a boiling point a few years after the incident at the conference when a company that was one of the nation’s top violators of labor law, according to Bronfenbrenner’s research, sued her for libel. While the case was ultimately dropped—the suit took issue with testimony Bronfenbrenner had given before a congressional town hall meeting, which is considered protected speech—she said the company’s intent was, in part, to obtain the raw data through the discovery process.
Bronfenbrenner said her experiences were symptomatic of a broader hostility from corporations at that time toward researchers who published unflattering research. “Tobacco research was intensifying. There was research on the oil industry and environmental research,” said Bronfenbrenner. “Corporations were hitting back pretty hard.”
Even though it was unsuccessful, the lawsuit served as an example for other researchers. “The purpose was to intimidate other scholars from doing similar research. And I think that was effective,” said Bronfenbrenner. “If you look in the field, you have seen people not be willing to follow in my footsteps. Because they say: ‘Well, look what happened.’”
Over the years, hundreds of Cornell business school grads have written to the university saying Bronfenbrenner, who is untenured, should be fired, according to her. “I’m not very popular among corporate alumni,” she said, as her research is often the primary data used to support labor law reform. Her findings were cited several times in President Biden’s pro-labor campaign plan.
When asked for comment, Cornell affirmed its support for academic freedom.
“Cornell is committed to the fundamental principles of academic freedom. We support academic research and faculty’s freedom to engage in scholarship unrestrained from external interference,” said Joel M. Malina, vice president for university relations at Cornell University. “Such freedoms are essential to the functions of our university as an educational institution.”
Anti-union consultants in particular, the subject of much of Bronfenbrenner’s research, see that research as a threat to their livelihood. “Part of their business depends on anonymity—or at least, they’re most effective when they’re working in the background,” said John Logan, a professor at San Francisco State University who studies the anti-union consulting industry. “They don’t like being put in the spotlight, their activities examined—they view it as a threat to their business. They’re likely to retaliate.”
Logan, another academic unpopular with the corporate crowd, said one former university president used to joke that he had a special folder on his computer where he kept all the messages he received demanding that he fire the director of labor studies. He’s been threatened with lawsuits, which he said was a common intimidation tactic.
Several consultants contacted by Capital & Main declined to discuss their tactics. But one longtime consultant, who preferred not to be named, defended efforts to obtain university records about labor studies programs, claiming that many of them serve as the “propaganda arm of unions.”
The field of labor studies has often been lambasted by conservative lawmakers who consider it union advocacy education that indoctrinates students. When legislators in Connecticut proposed a bill in 2015 encouraging schools to teach labor union history, Republican state Representative Charles J. Ferraro lashed out: “Capitalism has been under attack and quite frankly I don’t see how this particular bill is going to give a fair, balanced approach in teaching our children.”
Labor studies academics contend that the field can inform how we view everything from law, economics and history to music and literature by focusing on the perspective of the working class, which is often neglected in other disciplines.
”If you compare talking about supply chains from the point of view of the management class with the point of view of the working class, you can just see that those two images are going to look really different,” said Helena Worthen, who has taught labor studies at the University of Illinois and conducted research for the United Association for Labor Education. “And a union doesn’t really have time to do that.”
Copyright 2021 Capital & Main.
Marcus Baram contributed to this story.