SACRAMENTO — Of the hundreds of research institutes in California's public university system, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has targeted just one for elimination: a think tank dedicated to organized labor.
It is the scourge of conservatives and industry groups. They call it "Union U" and charge that the institute has been used to train union "thugs" to beat up political opponents.
But to founders, the Institute for Labor and Employment, based at UCLA and UC Berkeley, is a place where union leaders and academics can come together to explore workforce issues and trends.
The fate of the small institute is taking a prominent role in a high-stakes budget battle in Sacramento and a national debate over the place of organized labor in university classrooms, fueled by charges that the programs are merely a training ground for union activists.
On his own authority in December, Schwarzenegger cut $2 million from the institute -- what remained of its allocation through the current fiscal year, which ends in June. He has proposed eliminating it entirely next year. And even if the Legislature includes it in the budget, he can take out the $4-million program before signing the spending plan.
The governor's office directed questions to the Department of Finance, where a spokesman denied the cut was politically motivated.
"It wasn't targeted," said H.D. Palmer, adding that industry and conservative groups had played no role in the decision. "To my knowledge, there was zero interaction with any of those type of groups."
But John J. Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, calls Schwarzenegger's proposal part of a "conservative attack to cut labor studies programs."
The state's labor center, created under former Gov. Gray Davis in 2001 and well-liked by Democratic legislative leaders, holds workshops on how to increase union membership, get more at the bargaining table and fight globalization. It sponsors interdisciplinary research on a range of workplace topics, from gender discrimination and family leave to the role of unions in the new economy.
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich says "the information they provide has been extremely useful. They look at the entire labor market and ask hard questions about why the labor market looks the way it does, how it is evolving and how it could evolve."
Officials at the institute say their close connections with unions are no less appropriate than the relationships between corporations and the state's business schools. An associate director openly calls it "a small beachhead for organized labor" in academia. And he makes no apologies for a flier for a recent event that featured a drawing of workers joined in solidarity as a pig in a police uniform and a menacing-looking Richard Nixon lurk in the background.
Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) sits on the institute's advisory board and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), a former union organizer himself, has vowed to protect it, so the relatively tiny state allocation will test the will of the governor and legislative Democrats to fight for their core constituencies.
As anti-tax activists and union critics express outrage and mobilize behind Schwarzenegger's plan, administration officials say their goal is merely to save money without harming basic classes taught at the state's universities. "We could have taken the money out of a different part of the budget affecting classroom instruction. We chose not to do that," Palmer said.
Democrats, however, say that dozens of other institutes fit that description, and the labor studies program is the only one targeted. "It's something we are very concerned about," said Burton, who suggested the cut is "a gratuitous philosophic whack at labor."
Nunez calls it "wrong and inconsistent to eviscerate the whole labor institute without touching the business school."
The labor institute describes its mission as "advancing knowledge, research and understanding of labor and workplace issues and the preeminent role of labor as a trendsetter in California and the nation."
It has provided scores of research grants to explore such issues as the challenges of organizing day laborers and the value of city living-wage laws, and it produces a widely used annual report on state labor trends and issues. At a leadership school and conferences the institute runs with unions, labor leaders discuss tactics for strengthening union clout.
"People all over the country have been excited about this and are trying to replicate it," says institute Director Ruth Milkman.
Within a year after it was formed, the program drew the ire of a major construction industry group.
Officials with the Associated Builders and Contractors of California, which represents open shop construction firms, say they were offended by the institute's favorable report on construction project labor agreements.