June 17, 2014

Sarita Gupta

Scholars Share Research and Ideas at the Fourth Annual LRAN Conference

The opening plenary featured Harvard University scholar Theda Skocpol and journalist and author of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein.

Yesterday I had the honor of kicking off the fourth annual national Labor Research and Action Network (LRAN) conference, hosted by the Kalmanovitz Initiative at Georgetown University. Over 250 labor scholars and practitioners from unions, universities and nonprofits across the country have come together here to share their experiences and research that contributes to a stronger worker movement. The conference started with a conversation between AFT President Randi Weingarten, Harvard University scholar Theda Skocpol and journalist and author of Nixonland, Rick Perlstein, who discussed some of the obstacles workers and modest income families are facing – both in the economy and in politics –  as well as the root causes. Weingarten and Skocpol both emphasized the need for greater and more consistent engagement in community issues, increasing membership-based organizing and new organizing models.

A core mission of LRAN, a project coordinated by Jobs With Justice Education Fund, is to create a space for the exchange of ideas to advance a progressive workers’ movement, and this year’s conference is clearly fulfilling that goal. Throughout the day, professors, organizers, students and researchers networked, explored ways to collaborate and shared their experiences through panels that delved into topics ranging from auto worker organizing in the South, a recent successful campaign to enact paid family leave in New Jersey, and digital worker organizing strategies. I look forward to continuing these thought-provoking conversations today, when President of SEIU Healthcare Illinois Keith Kelleher, Katie Quan of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, and Saket Soni, executive director of the National Guestworker Alliance, will reflect on lessons learned to inform a path forward for the labor movement. This afternoon, Nelson Lichtenstein, noted labor expert, and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy, will lead a discussion on how to identify and hold business owners accountable for labor standards.

Another core mission of LRAN is to support new scholars in the field. This mission is particularly salient to us at Jobs With Justice, given our nearly 30-year history of developing student, faith and community leaders to build a strong workers’ movement. Academics have long played a role in our efforts to support worker campaigns, whether by serving on workers’ rights boards or by producing credible research to expose workplace injustices. Investing in, and nurturing a community of labor law academics, is essential for fueling new organizing strategies and expanding our labor movement.

Four years ago, Beth Gutelius and Elvis Mendez attended the LRAN conference and presented their joint research on the warehouse sector in Chicago. Beth was a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Elvis was an organizer with the Warehouse Workers for Justice. Since the conference, they continued to remain active in LRAN and were eventually elected to serve on the Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, Beth is doing research for the MacArthur Foundation and getting closer to earning her doctorate degree, while Elvis is coordinating innovative immigrant worker campaigns in New England. Last fall, both agreed to take on the responsibility of co-chairing this conference. Their work in spearheading this year’s conference exemplifies how LRAN is cultivating the next generation of leaders for our workers’ movement.

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