UC’s Biased, Activist Labor Research Centers

The University of California Berkleys’ research team has recently faced scrutiny for their activism and flawed studies. A recent op-ed by the Employment Policies Institute’s managing director, Michael Saltsman, highlighted the bias of the UC Berkeley research team.  

For instance: 

  • Berkeley’s team has sought funding explicitly tied to promoting higher minimum wages. In the Bay Area, for instance, Berkeley’s Ken Jacobs sought financial support to provide “(technical assistance) work for local groups engaged in work to raise the minimum wage,” as well as “testimony/media work around the issue in the East Bay.”  

You can read the op-ed in its entirety below:


 UC’s biased, activist labor research centers

Two of California’s state universities — the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Berkeley — were included in this month’s Wall Street Journal rankings of the country’s top public colleges.

While their academic prestige isn’t in doubt, recently these schools have been known more for their activism than their academics.

In July’s fierce battle over whether to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, for instance, UC Berkeley researchers were seemingly active combatants. House Democrats spooked by a government report warning of up to 3.7 million lost jobs voted for the policy after assurances by a member of the Berkeley team that these consequences wouldn’t materialize.

A similar scenario played out in Santa Monica, where a labor-friendly researcher from UCLA reassured the City Council that a controversial hotel workload ordinance back by Unite Here Local 11 wouldn’t hurt housekeepers — despite testimony otherwise from affected housekeepers.

The UC labor research teams have delivered soothing advice to state and city legislatures around the country, portraying themselves as a neutral arbiter of the facts on $15 and other workplace mandates. But their rhetoric often hasn’t matched reality.

Consider Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE). The IRLE has several affiliated centers, including the Center for Labor Research and Education (known as the Labor Center).

A considerable amount of financial support for the Center comes from labor unions: According to federal reports, over the last 15 years it has received nearly $1.2 million in labor funding. The UCLA Labor Center has similarly received tens of thousands of dollars from unions.

The IRLE’s highest-profile researcher is Michael Reich, who co-chairs its Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics. Reich made a name for himself at a young age co-founding the Union for Radical Political Economics, with the stated goal of supporting “public ownership of production and a government-planned economy.” Another executive, Ken Jacobs, was formerly campaign director at the San Francisco Living Wage Coalition; yet another, Annette Bernhardt, previously advocated for new workplace mandates at the National Employment Law Project (a union-backed advocacy group) and now sits on the board of multiple labor groups.

In case you thought these researchers left their biases and political activism at the door, emails obtained through public records requests prove otherwise.

In a 2014 email obtained through a records request to UC Berkeley, for instance, Jacobs wrote that he was seeking grant money to support his team’s efforts “for local groups engaged in work to raise the minimum wage” in California. He noted that the Labor Center would offer “testimony/media work” in support of those goals.

In another exchange obtained from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office, Jacobs and his team were asked to produce a study “to demonstrate clearly how a [higher minimum wage] will help labor and the economy in general.”

They subsequently reciprocated. (These emails and others can be viewed at BiasedBerkeley.com.)

Perhaps the highest-profile example of the Berkeley team’s bias was uncovered in emails from the office of former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.

After championing the city’s $15 minimum wage, Murray’s office found itself in an awkward situation: A team of city-supported researchers from the University of Washington identified negative consequences for employees from the $15 policy.

What happened next was memorably summarized in a headline from Seattle Weekly: “The City Knew the Bad Minimum Wage Report Was Coming Out, So It Called Up Berkeley.” Berkeley’s Reich was given a timeline by the mayor’s office to produce a flattering study on $15 that provided them with PR cover. The mayor’s media shop even coached him on what to include in the final study so as to not tip his hat on the coming University of Washington study.

Across hundreds of pages of emails, a clear conclusion emerges: This UC labor team has coordinated with legislators and special interest groups to publicize research that supports a one-sided minimum wage narrative.

According to the best research on this subject, summarized most recently by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, this narrative doesn’t match empirical reality.

Countless small businesses are being forced to lay off staff, reduce hours, or take other cost-cutting measures in geographies that have already experimented with $15 starter wages. (My organization is aggregating these real-world victims at Facesof15.com.)

With a record like this, it’s time that legislators start treating this UC team as the labor activists they are.

Michael Saltsman is managing director of the Employment Policies Institute, which receives financial support from businesses, foundations and individuals.

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