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.”
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Jeff Schuhrke is a labor historian, educator, journalist and union activist who teaches at the Harry Van Arsdale Jr. School of Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College in New York City. He has been an In These Times contributor since 2013. Follow him on Twitter @JeffSchuhrke.