Saba Waheed, first woman of color to lead the UCLA Labor Center

Her appointment represents a historic chapter for the iconic worker justice center

UCLA IRLE and UCLA Labor Center | October 26, 2023

Saba Waheed has been appointed as the first woman of color Director of the UCLA Labor Center, a unit of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) that advances cutting-edge research, education and service guided by its core values: economic equity, racial and immigrant justice and worker power and solidarity. 

Following an open national search, IRLE Director and labor historian Tobias Higbie announced Waheed’s appointment earlier this week. 

“She’s the perfect leader for the Labor Center’s next period of growth,” he said. “For almost 60 years, the Labor Center has been responding to the call to serve the working people of California. Saba’s appointment reminds us of the women who organized some of the first UC workers’ education programs in the 1930s.” 

Waheed assumes this role after serving as the center’s Research Director for the past 11 years. During this time, she became a leading figure in creating the Labor Center’s signature “research justice” framework that transforms university-based research through collaborative partnerships with unions, worker centers and community-based organizations. 

Waheed has conducted research on ride-hailing drivers, retail workers, Black workers, LGBTQ+ grocery store workers, domestic workers and employers, nail salon workers and young workers, among others. 

Senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles), former project director at the UCLA Labor Center and co-founder of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, who worked closely with Waheed for over 10 years on numerous projects that highlighted economic racial inequality reflected on the historic nature of her appointment.

“I am excited to celebrate the naming of Saba Waheed as the new executive director of the UCLA Labor Center. As the first woman of color in this role, Saba would join a long list of labor movement leaders who are creating a new paradigm in building power for working people,” said Smallwood-Cuevas. 

“Saba has demonstrated exceptional leadership among labor groups, unions and worker centers as well as a passionate commitment to lifting up all workers – from building trades and nail salon workers to Black and immigrant workers. She understands that the UCLA Labor Center is the connective tissue that the worker rights movement needs to expand and thrive in the 21st century,” she added. 

Waheed’s studies have informed local and state officials to improve working conditions for over a decade. Predictable scheduling practices in retail, domestic worker labor protections and the first-ever fast food state council in the country, are all directly attributable to data Waheed has released.

“Saba has done important work to deepen the public’s understanding of the dangerous conditions that Black, brown and immigrant fast-food workers face on the job in California,” said SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry. “Saba’s reports have underscored the urgent need to empower fast-food workers with a voice on the job — and they will continue to have ripple effects across the nation.”

Kimberly Alvarenga, director of the California Coalition for Domestic Workers, who has worked on multiple research projects with Waheed, also expressed support upon hearing the news of her appointment.

“We are overjoyed and ecstatic,” she said. “She has had a profound impact on our movement and our work to advance domestic workers rights in California – and for our broader community of workers. We look forward to building together.” 

A lecturer in UCLA’s labor studies interdepartmental degree program, Waheed has taught a summer program where undergraduate students learn community-engaged research skills. She’s also the co-producer and creator of the award-winning show Re:Work, a narrative storytelling podcast that humanizes economic and racial justice issues. 

As Waheed prepares to lead the Labor Center into its 60th year, she plans to expand its research justice capacity, grow leadership development programs, elevate the innovative efforts to advance economic and racial equity and remain focused on the long-term sustainability of the organization. 

She’s also keenly focused on ensuring that the goals of the organization remain centered on work and projects that have been traditionally ignored at institutions of higher learning.

“We’re in a historic moment in labor, and it’s been decades in the making and I firmly believe in the Labor Center’s mission that the university is here to serve public interest needs. I’m committed to leveraging our resources to improve the lives of immigrants, working people, our students and those locked out of the workforce,” said Waheed. 

“I also want to see our ground-up, community-powered, actionable research model expanded throughout the university and across the state and grow the schools-to-movement pipeline to build the next generation of social justice leaders.”

(Added October 27, 2023) The UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education (the Labor Center) was established in 1964 to develop and sustain links between the University of California and the organized labor movement. It is a unit of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, founded in 1946. Previous to Waheed’s appointment, two women–Geraldine Leshin and Gloria Busman–served in lead positions at the Labor Center under different titles. 

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