70 Years of Improving Workers’ Lives at UCLA

On Tuesday, April 11, over 250 attendees gathered at UCLA’s Luskin Center to celebrate the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment’s 70 years of work. In an evening with music, delicious food and drink, and great company, community and campus leaders reflected on the Institute’s long and storied history.

The theme of the evening was “UCLA’s Role in Workers’ Lives Today.” Institute director Abel Valenzuela opened up the evening by posing the question: In this divided political climate, what is UCLA’s responsibility to improve workers’ lives?

Valenzuela put forth that part of the answer lies in the work that the Institute has undertaken over the past seven decades. For over 70 years, the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment has conducted timely and impactful research on labor markets and how work impacts workers and their families. Through the work of its units – UCLA Labor Center, Human Resources Roundtable, and the Labor Occupational Safety and Health program – the Institute has created programing to improve workers lives, researching key issues such as worker health and safety, the minimum wage, wage theft, and immigrant worker issues.

“It’s amazing that you’re still here,” said UCLA History professor Robin D.G. Kelley. He spoke to the work that IRLE has done to build the capacity of worker organizations, and what this has done in turn for workers’ issues in Los Angeles. “What you’ve been able to do is shift attention to low-wage, marginalized workers. It’s not just a position of defending labor, it’s a vision of transforming society.”

UCLA alum Ana Luz Gonzalez and current student Fernando Atunez spoke about their experiences with the Institute’s teaching program. Gonzalez described her research on day laborers and wage theft, and how this research has been pivotal in advancing policy and educational programs aimed at ending wage theft among low-wage workers. Atunez talked about how work and mental health are connected, sharing the moving story of his own family as they coped with his mother’s deteriorating health.

Keynote speaker Maria Elena Durazo described the importance of UCLA’s commitment to working families. “It’s working families that pay for public higher education,” she said. “They are the permanent donors of the public university system.” She emphasized that working people need the protect their ability to defend their rights, said Durazo, because so many laws on the books are not enforced. She spoke of the UCLA Labor Center’s great work in partnership with worker organizations around issues such as wage theft, and the Labor Occupational Safety and Health’s role in preventing worker deaths on the job.

All speakers emphasized the hopefulness that the work of the Institute brings in this current political and economic era. Said Kelley, “These are not dark times. These are bright times. And you’re shining the light.”