Search for new LERC director

EUGENE - A national search is under way for a new director at the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) of the University of Oregon. Whoever is selected will have big shoes to fill to maintain the rich tradition of labor and workplace education and research the center has developed over the past 23 years, starting with Interim Director Steve Deutsch and continuing with Executive Directors Emory Via and Margaret Hallock.

Last month Hallock announced her resignation to take over as director of the new Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at UO. Associate Professor Marcus Widenor has been appointed interim director until a replacement is found.

"LERC is one of the finest labor centers in the country, and Margaret Hallock is a recognized leader in the field of labor education," Kent Wong, president of the United Association of Labor Education (UALE), told the Northwest Labor Press. UALE is an organization of about 50 labor center directors nationwide.

Wong, the executive director of the labor center at UCLA, said LERC has been at the forefront of developing links between the university and the labor community, and in strengthening education and research initiatives that have served the labor movement."

"LERC has sponsored successful teach-ins, and other educational events that have promoted dialogue and resource sharing among faculty and students, union members, and community leaders. LERC has also been at the cutting edge of promoting international solidarity," he said.

Lorraine Davis, vice provost for academic affairs at UO, said, "Margaret has been a distinguished director and has set high quality standards of research and service in establishing LERC as a nationally recognized leader in labor research and educational programs."

Over the last 23 years the labor center has been successful meeting the needs of two different constituencies - labor and the university - through the balance of extension education and training of workers with academic research and analysis of workplaces.

"We were challenged by the needs of two groups that, on the surface, might have little in common," Hallock wrote in LERC's 20th anniversary booklet. "This balance is the formula for our success. We do both. That is what is unique about LERC."

LERC was established by the Oregon Legislature in 1977 following years of studies, lobbying and negotiating by union leaders, lawmakers and administrators, who debated the merits of a center whose purpose was to link the communities and union halls of Oregon with the faculty and resources of the university. A report by the State Board of Higher Education culminated in a legislative proposal for funding to the tune of about $247,000.

The labor center was the first of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, but was modeled after similar education programs at public universities, including Cornell, Rutgers, Indiana, UC Berkeley and Wisconsin, which was the first to be established in 1924.

Deutsch, a sociology professor, was named the interim director, and he wasted no time establishing courses on stewards' training, contract negotiations and contract administration.

In 1978, Via was selected as the permanent director, and his ties to national labor leadership helped raise LERC's profile nationally. Within a year of Via's hiring, the George Meany Center for Labor Studies chose the labor center to lead the development of a national program in grievance handling for transit industry unions.

Recognition and demand were so great that the Legislature doubled LERC's budget in 1979. By 1986 a Portland Center was established downtown and a full-time faculty position was created for it. Via retired in 1988 and Hallock was hired not to simply carry on LERC's stated mission, but to help it branch out in new directions. Under her leadership LERC broadened its research and programming and began to emphasize strategic approaches to workplace change, labor-management relations and union operations. That new focus included an aggressive outreach to a broader constituency of workers, unionists and scholars worldwide. The reassessment resulted in seven years of growth and expansion.

Today, LERC reaches more than 4,000 workers each year on a budget of about $1 million. Only $600,000 is general fund money, the remainder comes from fees and grants. LERC conducts up to 50 continuing education programs and conferences each year, including a Public Employment Relations Conference. It offers nearly a dozen open enrollment leadership schools with classes designed to lead to a non-credit "U-LEAD" (Union-Leadership Education and Development) certificate. Its residential institutes, forums and conferences draw to the university trade unionists and scholars from throughout the world. LERC's strategic planning sessions for unions and contract programs range from short courses to in-depth projects on labor management cooperation.

LERC-sponsored research projects have involved construction ergonomics and safety and health; jobs and training in ecosystem rehabilitation; labor relations in the lumber and wood products industries; and the gender wage gap.

Additionally, the labor center offers internships and customized programs that connect graduate students to focal points in Oregon's workplaces, unions and decision-making bodies. LERC also participates in joint classes with the industrial relations program and the departments of public policy, planning and management, and sociology and research with the Center for the Study of Women in Society.

"We look for ways to tap their resources," said Daniel Pope, chair of the department of history at UO. "I've brought people from LERC to give presentations. Margaret and her staff have been a big resource for us."

Hallock said it is talented faculty that has helped keep LERC a vibrant part of the university. With backgrounds ranging from sociology, political science, economics, history, public health and education, LERC faculty serves as an important source of information about unions and workers to interested scholars and students.

Talking from her LERC office - an old house situated across from Hayward Field and overshadowed by the new brick and glass William W. Knight Law Center - Hallock praised faculty members Widenor, Deutsch, Steve Hecker, Lynn Feekin, Gordon Lafer, Billy Gibbons, William Hardwick, Helen Moss, Charles Spencer and Barbara Byrd, who oversees the Portland office.

But maintaining the labor education program at the university has never been easy. And it won't get any easier in the future - especially as more and more administrative supporters from the university retire.

As the economy goes, so goes LERC's budget. Several times in its history, lawmakers -many of whom weren't big supporters of organized labor to begin with - looked hard at saving money by eliminating or vastly reducing the program. One serious challenge in 1982 was thwarted with help from then-Governor Vic Atiyeh, who voiced opposition in a letter to the board of higher education. "In a time of economic downturn ... it would be irrational to close such units as the ... Labor Education and Research Center," he wrote.

In 1989, when voters passed Measure 5, the property tax limitation initiative, LERC's share of the higher education budget shrank along with it. "LERC's declining influence within the university was reflected in office moves and threats to tenure," was how it was described in the 20th anniversary book.

Gradually, LERC has rebuilt a stronger, more established position within the university and Hallock has played a key role by offering more on-campus programs.

UO has a search committee in place to find a new director. The committee is chaired by Associate Dean Robert O'Brien and includes Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO; LERC faculty members Hecker and Byrd, Gerald Berk of the department of political science, Michael Hibbard, department of public policy, planning and management, and UO student Chad Sullivan, the son of Steelworker and Marion-Polk-Yamhill Counties Labor Council President Mike Sullivan, of McMinnville.

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