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UCLA Downtown Labor Center celebrates 10th anniversary

By Kristen Taketa

Sept. 4, 2012 12:59 a.m.

A short subway ride away from the towering skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles, the simple white building of the UCLA Downtown Labor Center overlooks a wide blue-green lake in the middle of MacArthur Park. Around the water, dozens of people rest under the shade of the trees in the afternoon’s summer heat.

Above the building’s double glass doors, a sign reads “Unite!” ““ a call that has brought together wage workers of Los Angeles at the Center for a decade.

The Downtown Labor Center, an outreach office of the larger UCLA Labor Center, celebrated its 10-year anniversary Thursday.

The Labor Center expanded to downtown Los Angeles in 2002, opening the UCLA Downtown Labor Center as a way of bringing its mission closer to the heart of the city where the need for outreach is greater, said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center.

The UCLA Labor Center was created in 1964 on UCLA’s campus in an effort to improve working conditions for laborers through research, education and community programs, according to the center’s website. The center also provides several internships and offers the labor studies minor to teach UCLA students about labor issues such as unemployment and union organization.

Throughout the past decade, the Downtown Labor Center has created and housed many outreach programs targeting different demographics in the Los Angeles community. The various programs train minority workers to enter new careers and educate workers about how to organize for better working conditions.

“(The Labor Center) is much more accessible now and it has a much broader reach in engaging the communities that we serve,” Wong said.

Many workers, immigrants and minority groups the center works with ““ as well as unions and other labor organizations ““ reside and are based in the downtown area, he said.

A majority of the center’s 25 staff members work at the downtown office, Wong said.

One program established at the downtown center, the Black Worker Center, provides education and union leadership training for black people like Anthony Corothers, a 35-year-old Los Angeles resident who is currently unemployed after working in various positions and is struggling to find a job.

Corothers said he discovered the Downtown Labor Center a couple of months ago through his brother and has benefitted from its workshops, learning how to look for and secure a construction apprenticeship job.

Corothers said he also attends a math class every Saturday offered by the downtown center’s Black Leaders in Green program, which provides mentorships and training for young black people to enter careers in the green building industry.

Even though it has been difficult for him to find a job because of the tough economic climate, Corothers said the workshops and people at the center helped him find the next steps to employment and grow as an individual.

“(The center) has been very influential to me, and in terms of helping people in general,” Corothers said. “It means a lot.”

The biggest challenge for the Downtown Labor Center in its 10-year history has been securing funds for its programs, said Victor Narro, labor studies professor and project director at the downtown center.

The UCLA Labor Center, which used to be fully funded by the state of California, now relies on grants and private donations from nonprofit organizations for 75 percent of its budget, he said.

“We really rely on foundations to help us (now),” Narro said. “That’s the only way we can survive.”

Despite the changes in funding, for Narro and other staff members and students at the Labor Center, the many programs developed at the center in its short history have brought not just community, but also personal fulfillment, Narro said.

The workers Narro meets each day remind him of his parents, he said. Many of his family members are wage workers, too, he added.

“(My family members) have nothing. They don’t have Social Security, they always pay in cash,” Narro said. “We want to make sure to stop this cycle of poverty and low wages. That’s what keeps us here in the (Labor) center.”

At its 10th anniversary reception Thursday, a sense of community was prevalent as scores of people gathered to celebrate the downtown center’s progress.

“We are very excited about what we have accomplished these last 10 years,” Wong said. “We anticipate that as the years go by, we will continue to develop more programs that engage faculty, students and community partners in improving the lives of working people and students.”

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Kristen Taketa
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