Industry Critics: UC Berkeley Playing Host to Union-Funded Activist Research

Food Labor Research Center funded by union-backed groups to produce pro-labor studies, according to critics
UC Berkeley Campus / AP

UC Berkeley Campus / AP

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A coalition of foundations and union front groups is funding an academic post at the University of California at Berkeley for a prominent labor activist, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Saru Jayaraman, executive director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC), a worker center that aims to organize food service employees, founded Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center in 2012. The center, which is sponsored by the university’s Labor Research Center, conducts research into working conditions and public policy as it relates to the food business.

According to a proposal outlining the project, Jayaraman’s vision of the center was as political as it was academic. She hoped to use the center to produce studies that would bolster the Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), a coalition of unions and labor activists. ROC is a member of that group.

“In order to address the pressing information needs of this movement, the FCWA is proposing the creation of the nation’s first Food Labor Institute,” she said in a proposal emailed to Berkeley staffers in October 2011. “Our Food Labor Institute would conduct and coordinate research and policy analysis […] as a way to inform these growing campaigns, as well as policymakers, the press, and the public.”

Berkeley professor Steven Pitts, a member of ROC’s board of directors, worried that the center would be “a potential resource drain on the Labor Center budget” and could create a conflict of interest.

“I think it is important to assure the Labor Center that this initiative is fully self-sustaining,” he wrote in an Oct. 17, 2011 email. “Second, the Labor Center would need to be clear about where the line is drawn between Saru, Labor Center staff working on food labor issues, and Saru, [executive director] of ROC.”

Jayaraman sought to address the issue by drawing a university paycheck funded by ROC supporters for part-time work, while relying on ROC directly for the other half of her salary. She exceeded expectations, collecting $157,500 from various foundations, including a $5,000 donation from the FCWA, for ROC. Berkeley agreed to pay her $39,600 for the fall semester.

Katie Quan, a senior labor specialist at the Labor Center who helped arrange the appointment, said in a Free Beacon interview Free Beacon that the public university does not pay any part of Jayaraman’s salary and that the use of grants from outside sources to fund positions is common practice in higher education.

“A confluence of shared interests led to her affiliation,” she said, adding that the university has taken extra steps to establish “a firewall between the activism and the research.”

“Saru is an activist, but she’s also a scholar… the pieces produced by the research center are of rigorous academic quality,” Quan said. “The Labor Center has a number of people who have had histories as union organizers and staff positions in worker centers, so this is a point we make clearly.”

Neither Jayaraman, nor Pitts returned requests for comment.

Labor watchdogs dispute the notion that Jayaraman’s academic work can be separated from her activism. Mike Paranzino, spokesman for ROC Exposed, an industry group, said that Jayaraman is using the academic appointment to give her research the appearance of objectivity.

“This gives her credibility that she otherwise wouldn’t have as someone with a vested interest and a clear agenda,” Paranzino said in an interview. “These documents show how a public university is using its good name and academic reputation to advance the union agenda.”

Jayaraman’s most recent academic work demonstrates the blurred lines of her partnership with Berkeley.

In June, she published “Shelved: How Wages and Working Conditions for California’s Food Retail Workers have Declined as the Industry has Thrived,” which found that wages had fallen 25 percent for grocery store workers, despite 2 percent growth in the industry. The FCWA “provided primary research support” for the study, which was commissioned by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

“Saru’s work can be of a general nature researching, say, the relationship between different entities in the food supply chain or wage levels of workers. All of that is considered bona fide research,” Quan said of the firewall between activism and academics. “What it cannot do is be directly advocating for something related to a campaign.”

The first page of the study appears to breach the firewall.

“The report calls for a two-pronged strategy to arrest and reverse these trends: support for unionization, and public policies that support livable wages and benefits,” Jayaraman writes. “This strategy would promote the creation of good jobs in the food retail sector and help build long-term prosperity for California’s families and communities.”

The report was commissioned by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and was met with widespread media coverage. A Los Angeles Times story identified Jayaraman as a “researcher at the UC Berkeley Food Labor Research Center,” while making no mention of her work with ROC or her career as a labor activist.

Glenn Spencer, a vice president at the Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, said that the nature of Jayaraman’s appointment hurts the credibility of the center’s research.

“ROC received more than $6 million in foundation grants just from 2009-2012. Buying their own program at a university would be an interesting way to put that money to use, although the credibility of any research that came out of it would be questionable,” he said.

The establishment of the Food Labor Research Center is not Jayaraman’s first interaction with Berkeley. She outlined ROC’s strategy to organize workers at a symposium sponsored by the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law and the Berkeley La Raza Law Journal in April 2005. The primary tactic, she said, is conducting public protests and shaming campaigns against restaurants that “[send] a signal to the rest of the industry.” The second component is less visible, but just as necessary.

“Two, doing research and policy work to lift consciousness and create a culture of organizing among workers,” she said.

Ryan Williams, spokesman for Worker Center Watch, said that Berkeley has given Jayaraman the platform to put that plan into action.

“Labor bosses are simply trying to install a puppet who can produce dishonest and inaccurate information with the Berkeley imprimatur that will be used to push their agenda,” he said. “This is nothing more than an elaborate shell game, and it is disgraceful that a public university like Berkeley would be willing to compromise its integrity to help Big Labor.”