Labor Research and Action Network Aims To Connect Researchers and Scholars with the Labor Movement

Jeff Schuhrke June 27, 2016

Pictured from L: Jack Metzgar, Roosevelt University; Roberta Lynch, AFSCME Counil 31; Kenneth Franklin, ATU Local 308; Karen Lewis, CTU.

When 100,000 pro­test­ers occu­pied the Wis­con­sin State Capi­tol in ear­ly 2011 in an attempt to thwart Gov­er­nor Scott Walker’s bill revok­ing the rights of pub­lic sec­tor employ­ees, a group of labor researchers and schol­ars were moti­vat­ed to coor­di­nate their efforts to bet­ter serve the inter­ests of the work­ing class.

We knew we need­ed aca­d­e­mics with cred­i­bil­i­ty say­ing that what was hap­pen­ing with Wisconsin’s attack on unions was not right,” says Erin Johans­son, who at the time was a researcher for the Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based advo­ca­cy group Amer­i­can Rights at Work.

Johans­son believes aca­d­e­mics bring a lev­el of trust­wor­thi­ness into pub­lic debates that is cru­cial to the labor move­ment. After the Wis­con­sin upris­ing, she and oth­ers felt there need­ed to be a cen­tral hub to con­nect schol­ars and the move­ment. That kind of coor­di­na­tion is real­ly crit­i­cal when we lack the resources that our oppo­nents have,” she says, not­ing the influ­ence of well-fund­ed right-wing think tanks.

The result was the cre­ation of the Labor Research and Action Net­work (LRAN), an open, vol­un­teer-dri­ven forum to match aca­d­e­mics with cam­paign­ers, share skills, design train­ings, and award research grants to emerg­ing scholars.

This past week­end, about 150 rep­re­sen­ta­tives from unions, work­er cen­ters, acad­e­mia, and non­prof­its from around the coun­try gath­ered in Chica­go for the sixth annu­al LRAN con­fer­ence. Host­ed by the DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty Labor Edu­ca­tion Cen­ter, this was the first time the con­fer­ence was held out­side of Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Pre­sen­ters includ­ed Chica­go Teach­ers Union Pres­i­dent Karen Lewis, labor lawyer and author Thomas Geoghe­gan, AFL-CIO Exec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent Tef­ere Gebre, and AFSCME Coun­cil 31 Exec­u­tive Direc­tor Rober­ta Lynch, as well as dozens of work­er activists, strate­gic researchers, orga­niz­ers, and schol­ars. The conference’s themes includ­ed link­ing racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice, defend­ing pub­lic ser­vices from aus­ter­i­ty, build­ing inno­v­a­tive research and edu­ca­tion­al pro­grams, and orga­niz­ing out­side the tra­di­tion­al col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing framework.

You can’t func­tion with­out infor­ma­tion,” Lewis told con­fer­ence par­tic­i­pants, empha­siz­ing the role of research in chal­leng­ing anti-work­er nar­ra­tives. Acad­e­mia can pro­vide a vision [for the labor move­ment], help refine it, and artic­u­late infor­ma­tion to a broad­er audience.”

As an active LRAN mem­ber since its first con­fer­ence in 2011, Beth Gutelius — a Ph.D. can­di­date in Urban Plan­ning at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go — has helped groups like Ware­house Work­ers for Jus­tice and the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­ers Alliance con­duct sur­veys and pre­pare reports shed­ding light on some of the country’s most mar­gin­al­ized workers.

Being able to use cred­i­ble, rig­or­ous research to back up claims that orga­niz­ers are mak­ing about the state of an indus­try can be very pow­er­ful,” Gutelius tells in In These Times. With­out such research, she explains, it is much eas­i­er for pol­i­cy­mak­ers and reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies to dis­miss con­cerns raised by work­ers and organizers.

In its short exis­tence, LRAN already has sev­er­al accom­plish­ments. With the help of the net­work, the orga­ni­za­tion In the Pub­lic Inter­est con­nect­ed with a group of schol­ars and recent­ly pro­duced a report reveal­ing how char­ter schools prof­it from pri­va­ti­za­tion. LRAN has also orga­nized train­ings to help cam­paign researchers uncov­er preda­to­ry prac­tices of the finance indus­try, and recent­ly got 250 aca­d­e­mics to sign onto an open let­ter in favor of the new fed­er­al over­time rule. In addi­tion, this year LRAN award­ed over $15,000 in research grants to three grad­u­ate stu­dents study­ing labor issues.

LRAN is a project of Jobs with Jus­tice (JwJ) — a nation­al net­work of labor, faith, and com­mu­ni­ty coali­tions. Now JwJ’s research direc­tor and LRAN coor­di­na­tor, Johans­son says LRAN is sort of our aca­d­e­m­ic arm…As local Jobs with Jus­tice coali­tions are engaged in fights, they’ve made use of our con­tacts with researchers and aca­d­e­mics to work on projects together.”

Aca­d­e­mics are work­ers too,” says Matt Hoff­mann, a researcher for SEIU Local 73 who mod­er­at­ed a work­shop at the con­fer­ence on the strug­gles of adjunct fac­ul­ty. One of the big shifts in acad­e­mia we’re see­ing is that aca­d­e­mics at all lev­els of tenure and con­tin­gency are strug­gling and their work­ing con­di­tions are deteriorating.”

A for­mer adjunct instruc­tor at Loy­ola Uni­ver­si­ty Chica­go, North­east­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty, and Illi­nois Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy, Hoff­man came into the labor move­ment as an activist with SEIU’s Fac­ul­ty For­ward cam­paign to union­ize non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty.

We’re start­ing to see peo­ple who used to be in com­fort­able research posi­tions are now inter­est­ed in orga­niz­ing and hav­ing a say in their work­ing con­di­tions,” Hoff­man says. We have a lot of work to do as aca­d­e­mics, orga­niz­ing our­selves to con­nect to the wider labor movement.”

It’s one thing to just sit around and have con­ver­sa­tions,” Karen Lewis told aca­d­e­mics at the con­fer­ence. It’s anoth­er thing to have con­ver­sa­tions one-to-one direct­ly. It’s anoth­er thing to build sol­i­dar­i­ty and have real relationships.”

Some of this sol­i­dar­i­ty is already being built between the adjunct activists with Fac­ul­ty For­ward and fast-food activists with the Fight for $15 cam­paign, who have come to each other’s ral­lies in Chica­go. As Hoff­man explains, There was a lot of sur­prise from fast-food work­ers to see that peo­ple with Ph.D.s are still liv­ing in pover­ty, still apply­ing for wel­fare… It shows that edu­ca­tion isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the thing that will launch you into a mid­dle-class lifestyle.”

Gutelius believes schol­ars ben­e­fit from engag­ing with social jus­tice move­ments. I think it makes us smarter to be chal­lenged to make our ideas more use­ful,” she says. It makes us more hon­est. We’re not account­able to any­one in the acad­e­my, but when we work with com­mu­ni­ty groups or unions, we get some of that account­abil­i­ty… It makes you think though your deci­sions and fig­ure out how to explain yourself.”

Going for­ward, Johans­son tells In These Times that she would like to see LRAN’s near­ly 1,000 mem­bers start to do more self-orga­niz­ing around projects and pool more resources for research grants. She notes that mem­bers in Chica­go organ­i­cal­ly” came togeth­er to form their own local chap­ter, and says there’s noth­ing stop­ping mem­bers in oth­er parts of the coun­try from doing the same.

The mod­el of peo­ple meet­ing local­ly is nice and we encour­age that else­where. It’d be great to see more chap­ters form that way,” she says. We’re not high­ly bureau­crat­ic, you don’t need a char­ter or any­thing like that. If some­one wants to form a chap­ter, we’ll give you a list of local peo­ple, and you can start one yourself.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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