University of Oregon LERC celebrates 40 years of support for labor


By Don McIntosh

University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding this month. LERC is a university extension program that helps unions with training and research. The idea for it first came up in 1971 as a resolution passed at the annual convention of the Oregon AFL-CIO. It took several attempts, but with the help of Ted Kulongoski — who was then a state representative from Eugene — a proposal to establish LERC won approval at the Oregon Legislature in 1977.

LERC faculty and staff in 1994: Marcus Widenor, Lynn Feekin, Steve Hecker, Jill Kriesky, Bill Fritz, Charles Spencer, Margaret Hallock, Steven Deutsch, Lee Schore, Val Font, Clara Coester, Barbara Hedges, Malcom McRae, and Connie Wagner.

Today, LERC has five faculty, five support staff, offices on UO’s Eugene and Portland campuses, and an annual budget of just under $1 million. An advisory board of about 30 labor and legislative leaders meets quarterly to offer guidance. LERC is one of at least 19 such programs around the country.

Unlike regular university programs, LERC doesn’t offer academic credit. Instead, it’s part of the state university system’s adult education outreach effort, not unlike the agricultural extension work done for the farming industry at Oregon State University, or the Population Research Center at Portland State University that helps city planners.

“Education, research and service are the three pillars of a public university,” LERC director Bob Bussel told the Labor Press, “and I think we have done an effective job of integrating those functions and fulfilling the university’s public mission.”

LERC is best known for three regular programs that have trained generations of union stewards and officers over the years:

  • AFL-CIO Summer School, a three-day program of classes that draw about 150 union participants to the UO campus in Eugene every summer;
  • Public Employment Relations Conference, which takes place at the Salem Convention Center in the spring in even-numbered years, bringing together about 200 attorneys, arbitrators, and labor and management staff representatives for strategy workshops and updates on public employee case law; and the
  • Collective Bargaining Institute, a five-day intensive bargaining training for about 30 union members, held every December at the Menucha Retreat and Conference Center in Corbett.

Lately, LERC has also worked with a number of larger unions to help with strategic planning and leadership development. And LERC staff have published research that has had an impact on public policy, like a report on abusive scheduling practices by employers, which contributed to legislation passed this year.

Will LERC be around another 40 years? Only if unions and their allies maintain their support of it. As Bussel has often said, “eternal vigilance is the price of a labor education program.”

Funding for LERC and programs like it elsewhere sometimes comes under political attack by opponents of the union movement, who argue that taxpayers shouldn’t support union training — never mind the fact that it’s the official policy of the federal government to encourage collective bargaining.

“There are people that question the legitimacy of a publicly-funded program in the university that views the union movement and workers as its primary constituency,” Bussel said. “We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had people who have been prepared to step up and defend us when our legitimacy and role have been questioned.”



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