History of UALE

By Kent Wong, UALE President, 2000 – 2002

The United Association for Labor Education was established in 2000, as a merger of two separate organizations:  the University and College Labor Education Association, and the Workers Education Local #189.  Both of these two labor education associations had a long history of advancing the field of labor education in the United States, and saw the benefit of joining together to form one unified national association of labor educators.

UALE builds on a rich tradition of U.S. labor education.  Some notable milestones in the history of U.S. labor education include:

  • The Brookwood Labor College was established in New York in 1921.  Brookwood was a two-year residential college for workers, and embraced a curriculum centered on labor, social justice, and peace.    The founders embraced a vision of worker education to promote social change through nonviolence.  Although they were initially affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, because of their militant trade union approach and support for socialism, the AFL support was withdrawn in 1928.  Brookwood closed its doors in 1937. 
  • The Highlander Folk School was launched in Tennessee in 1932 by Myles Horton.  Horton drew inspiration from the Danish Folk School model, and developed Highlander to serve the needs of the working poor in Appalachia.  Highlander played a crucial role in training union organizers for the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930’s.  In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, Highlander again played a critical role in training a new generation of civil rights leaders.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks were both involved in educational programs at the Highlander Folk School.  The Highlander Center is still a significant research and education institution advancing social justice in the South.
  • The Wisconsin School for Workers was the first university-based labor program launched in 1925.  The Young Women’s Christian Association was also involved in early support for the School for Workers.  The curriculum centered on collective bargaining, contract administration, union administration, and union leadership development.  The School for Workers is the oldest university-based labor program in the country, and is still active in Wisconsin. 
  • Workers Education Local #189 was also launched in the 1920’s, as a union for worker educators.  WEL #189 was committed to the development of the craft of labor education, and convened regular conferences and meetings to share curriculum and to address critical issues facing labor educators and the broader labor movement.  They were affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, and later with the Communication Workers of America.
  • The University Labor Education Association was established in 1960, and renamed the University and College Labor Education Association in 1974.  UCLEA was established to develop and sustain a growing national network of university and college labor centers and labor studies programs.  They were engaged in professional development and educational activities to support the growing field within higher education. 

The passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 witnessed a huge upsurge in union membership in the United States.  Following World War II, there was the rapid development of the field of Industrial Relations in the United States.  Universities and colleges responded to this change by establishing programs that would conduct research, train a new generation of professionals, and promote educational events to support the growing field of labor and industrial relations.

In 1942, the Harvard Trade Union Program was established.  It is the oldest university based trade union leadership school in the country, and still has an annual residency program that engages national and international trade union leaders.  In 1945, the Institutes for Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley and UCLA, the Cornell New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and the Industrial Relations Center at the University of Minnesota were all established.  

In 1946, the University of Illinois School for Labor and Employment Relations was founded, and in 1947, Rutgers University launched the Institute for Management and Labor Relations.  In the 1950’s, the Labor and Industrial Relations Center at the University of Michigan, and the Department of Labor Studies at Indiana University were also established.

In 1964, the UCLA and UC Berkeley Centers for Labor Research and Education were established within the Institute for Industrial Relations, to address the particular research and education needs of unions and workers.   The University of Massachusetts Labor Center was also inaugurated in 1964.  Many other Labor Centers were also established in the 1960’s and 1970’s within public universities and colleges based on a demand by labor to access higher education resources to explicitly serve unions and workers. 

In 1969, the George Meany Center was launched as the education and training center for the AFL-CIO.  They opened a residential campus in Silver Springs, Maryland, and recruited union leaders and members from throughout the country to participate in their educational programs.

In the 1970’s, regular meetings between union labor educators and university labor educators were convened, usually by the AFL-CIO Education Department.  One of the joint initiatives was the “Summer Institutes for Union Women,” designed to promote women’s leadership development within the labor movement.  Many women union leaders across the country credit the Summer Institutes for supporting their career advancement within the labor movement.

In the 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan busted the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Union and initiated a new wave of attacks on unions.  With massive plant shutdowns, global capital flight, and the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, the U.S. also witnessed a steady decline in union density.  As unions lost ground in major manufacturing states, the political terrain also shifted to the right.  As a consequence, many labor centers were faced with budget cutbacks and threats of elimination by conservative politicians who were hostile to university  programs whose mission included support for unions and worker leadership development.  

In 1995, there was a contested election for leadership within the AFL-CIO.  John Sweeney, President of the Service Employees International Union, was elected President of the AFL-CIO,  Richard Trumka from the United Mine Workers Union and Linda Chavez-Thompson from AFSCME were the two additional officers on his leadership slate.  His election also represented a significant expansion of the AFL-CIO executive council, which included more women and people of color than ever before.

The new AFL-CIO leadership promoted the inclusion of young people into the labor movement, partnered with the AFL-CIO Organizing Institute, and set up Union Summer to recruit college students to work on union organizing campaigns.  Many university and college based labor centers participated actively in recruiting and training new student activists to join the labor movement.

The AFL-CIO leadership recruited UCLEA President Sue Schurman from Rutgers University to become head of the George Meany Center.  Under her leadership, the National Labor College was established, and secured accreditation in order to provide degree-granting programs for the first time.  The National Labor College developed both Bachelor and Masters’ Degree programs in labor studies. 

The annual conference of union and university based labor educators addressed the new challenges facing the labor movement.  In 1997, for the first time the annual labor educator conference was held in Toronto, Canada, and brought together U.S., Canadian, and Mexican labor educators and labor leaders.  Labor educators were involved in supporting “Common Sense Economics,” a progressive educational initiative grounded in popular education. 

In the year 2000, Workers Education Local #189 and UCLEA merged to form the United Association for Labor Education.  UCLEA President Kent Wong from UCLA and WEL #189 President Charlie Micallef from the International Association of Machinists led a one-year planning process to facilitate this merger.  Kent Wong was elected first President of UALE. 

There was a conscious effort to ensure participation by both union and university labor educators, and to include more women and people of color on the executive board.  The annual conferences were restructured to provide opportunities for presentation of academic papers, as well as participatory workshops to share best practices in the craft of labor education. 

Working groups were also established to focus on the development of central labor councils and state federations, to promote popular education, to encourage global solidarity and immigrant rights, and to develop women and people of color within the field of labor education.  The Labor Studies Journal was also revitalized, with greater attention to linking the themes of the conferences to the themes of the journal. 

In 2002, Chuck Davis from the University of Indiana Labor Studies Department was elected President of UALE.   

In 2004, the AFL-CIO eliminated their Education Department.  The work of education and collaboration with UALE shifted to the National Labor College.

The financial constraints of the AFL-CIO were exacerbated when several unions broke away from the AFL-CIO in 2005, and established the Change to Win federation.  The AFL-CIO consolidated several departments, and reduced staff.

In 2006, Dennis Serrette, a labor educator from the Communication Workers of America, was elected President of UALE.  Serrette was the first union-based educator to serve as President.

In 2009, Richard Trumka was elected president of the AFL-CIO.  For the first time in history, two women rounded out the leadership slate, Arlene Holt Baker from ASCME and Liz Schuler from IBEW. 

In 2010, Elissa McBride, education department director of AFSCME, was elected president of UALE.  The Executive Board of UALE became more active, and began aggressively recruiting more institutional members, especially among unions.  The annual winter meetings also engaged more participants from both union and university education programs.  UALE membership witnessed an upsurge, and the conferences generated more participation. 

In 2013, the AFL-CIO convention was held in Los Angeles.  Trumka and Shuler were re-elected, while Tefere Gebre from the Orange County Labor Federation was elected Executive Vice-President.  The convention also signaled a major change in embracing alliances with worker centers, support for immigrant rights, and advancing global solidarity.  Al Davidoff within the AFL-CIO was tasked with launching a new leadership development program.  

In March 2014, Cheryl Teare of the American Federation of Teachers was elected UALE president at the annual conference in Los Angeles with the theme:  “A New Labor Movement for a New Working Class.”  The Los Angeles conference included more participation from people of color, young people, and representatives of worker centers. 

In March 2016,

The United Association for Labor Education continues to serve the education needs of the labor movement, and to promote leadership development among union members and elected officers.  With institutional membership from union, university, and community based worker education programs, and with individual membership of labor educators, UALE plays a key role in connecting labor scholars and labor leaders throughout the country and abroad.  UALE continues to provide critical support for the field of labor education, as an integral part of building a stronger and more dynamic labor movement.

Since the Los Angeles conference in 2014, the involvement of people of color, young people, and representatives of worker centers has continued to increase. This was particularly evident at the 2017 conference in Detroit, Michigan.

At the 2018 Seattle conference, a new e-board was elected with 2 e-board members (Debra Kidney and Cheryl Coney) retaining their seats from 2016-2018 as treasurer and at-large member, respectively and Amanda Pacheco moving from secretary to union vice-president and Mary Bellman from regional representative to UALE president. 

At the 2019 annual membership meeting in Philadelphia, the membership voted to move to an every other year conference schedule and to extend the existing E-Board leadership until 2021.

Edited by Emily E. LB. Twarog, UALE VP Higher Education, 2020

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