Chris Tilly, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, was featured in a KQED report about the role of contractors in Silicon Valley, described by one tech worker as a “two-tiered caste system.” Contract workers have grown in prominence due to the ease of hiring and firing, as well as being cheaper than full-time employees. According to Tilly, “the advantages of the contractor model are even more valuable in the investor-dependent, quick-pivot world of Silicon Valley because it allows firms to quickly scale up and scale down projects with labor.” Despite doing the same work, contractors earn less and don’t share the same perks of benefits and stability as traditional full-time employees. Due to their precarious positions, many contract workers fear losing their jobs by speaking out. While workers in older industries are protected by unions, Tilly explained that “[Silicon Valley] companies start out with a blank slate,” making it difficult for contract workers to organize.
Sanford Jacoby, distinguished professor emeritus of public policy at UCLA Luskin, commented in a front-page New York Times article about the remarkably egalitarian employee profit-sharing program offered by Sears in its heyday. Before it was phased out in the 1970s, the stock-ownership plan allowed Sears workers at all ranks to build a comfortable nest egg. “People were retiring with nice chunks of change,” Jacoby said. “People loved this fund, and Sears was a wildly successful company.” But the approach favored men over women and also made workers even more exposed to their employer’s fate, said Jacoby, who also holds professorial appointments in history and management at UCLA. The article contrasted the program at Sears, which has declared bankruptcy, with policies at Amazon, which recently lifted its minimum hourly wage to $15 but also stopped giving stock to hundreds of thousands of employees. The decision underscores how lower-paid employees across corporate America have been locked out of profit-sharing and stock grants, the article said.
Chris Tilly, professor of urban planning, is quoted in a Los Angeles Times story about the benefits of perks that include free passes and access to special events and attractions for employees working at Southern California theme parks. “It does enable you to hold on to good employees, but it also helps motivate people,” said Tilly, who studies labor markets and public policies directed toward better jobs. “You want them to be part of the team, and they are jazzed to be working there.”
The current jobs outlook is worse for women who fill lower-paying, entry-level jobs primarily in food retail, according to the researchers. Photo by iStock
By Stan Paul
“The United States has a bad jobs problem, and retail jobs are at the heart of it.”
That’s the first line of a new book, “Where Bad Jobs are Better: Retail Jobs Across Countries and Companies (Russell Sage Foundation),” co-authored by UCLA Urban Planning professor Chris Tilly.
But, Tilly argues in the book, it does not need to be the last line for retail employment, especially when compared to the same jobs outside of the U.S. There is room to improve, according to Tilly and co-author Françoise Carré, research director at the Center for Social Policy at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
What is responsible for this perception of the largest — and still growing — employment sector in the nation? Low wages, unstable working hours and flat advancement prospects top the list, as well as high turnover rates for employees and a drop in productivity. The current outlook is worse for women who fill lower-paying, entry-level jobs primarily in food retail as opposed to their male counterparts who fill the vast majority of higher-paying retail positions in management, according to Tilly and Carré.
In addition, the authors point out, “It is worth emphasizing here that the evidence is strong that employment in stores is here to stay for a long time to come, in spite of recent predictions of the imminent displacement of store-based retail by online sales.” Their book also touches on a number of current topics, including election-cycle debates on raising the federal minimum wage.
Searching for solutions, the authors started with a comparative “global shopping trip,” in which they made a rigorous study comparing the U.S. retail industry with the same sector in five Western European countries and Mexico. In doing so, they asked what national institutional settings make a difference in job quality and what “room for maneuver” retailers have, by country, to manage for better jobs.
In the richer countries in Western Europe, the authors found more job productivity, better and more regular hours and higher pay than in the U.S. in comparable jobs. For example, the pay was notably higher in France, and notice of work schedules was markedly better in Germany. The differences in social norms and the role of institutions and regulations in these countries have led to relatively better job quality than in the U.S., according to Tilly and Carré.
“Improving retail jobs does not necessarily mean turning them into unambiguously good jobs; retail jobs in our comparison countries are not terrific, but they are better in significant ways,” the authors report.
Tilly and Carré also assert that the U.S. can choose whether service jobs in retail will be bad or good. “Put in the simplest terms, U.S. bad jobs in retail and other low-wage industries will improve when changes are made in the institutional environment — laws, labor relations structures, and broadly held values — followed by changes in managerial approaches.”
The situation in Mexico, a poorer country when compared to the U.S. and the other countries studied, can be instructive. The authors note that the economic gap between Mexico and the U.S. might be the determining factor in comparing retail jobs. But, they add, this is only partly true. Using Wal-Mart as an example of a company that dominates retail sectors in both countries, they find that “even this behemoth behaves differently in terms of choice of market segments and labor strategies across countries.” For example, they point out that in the U.S., Wal-Mart is 100 percent non-unionized, whereas in Mexico, it pays higher wages than its competitors and is mostly unionized.
They explain, “Wal-Mart is not the exception to the influence of societal effects around the world, but rather demonstrates that influence. Even Wal-Mart provides better jobs where rules are better.”
The authors demonstrate that, by understanding where and why bad jobs are better, “we can learn how to make them better across the board.”
More about “Where Bad Jobs are Better,” including the complete introduction and a supplemental chapter, may be found online.
The Lower Los Angeles River project team gathers after their presentation in June 2017. Photos by Les Dunseith
By Les Dunseith
As the curtain lifts on another academic year at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, second-year Master of Urban and Regional Planning (MURP) students enrolled in one of two group efforts begin to tackle a major planning issue from multiple angles.
Listening, learning, analyzing, synthesizing and debating, the students enrolled in the Community Scholars and Comprehensive Project options will unite by graduation time to produce a shared vision of how best to address a challenge of significant scope and scale.
Exactly how comprehensive are these projects? Here’s the tally from last year:
- 29 Urban Planning students (now alumni)
- 20-plus weeks of class instruction
- 545 total pages (256 pages in one report, 289 in the other)
- 172 charts, tables, illustrations, infographics and complex data maps
- dozens of photographs (including a few shot by a drone camera high overhead)
- hundreds of emails, texts, phone calls and face-to-face sessions
Both of these group efforts are popular among students despite the workload, said Alexis Oberlander, graduate adviser in Urban Planning. In fact, an application and acceptance process is necessary to limit enrollment to a manageable number of about 15 for each.
“Comprehensive projects are more realistic to what it’s like in a professional setting,” Oberlander said of the difference between the group efforts and individual client projects pursued by other MURP students. In the professional world, “You don’t really do anything alone most of the time.”
The group efforts are similar in scope, complexity and instructional approach, but Community Scholars and the Comprehensive Project have key differences.
Community Scholars is a joint initiative of UCLA Luskin and the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education that has been tackling issues related to jobs, wages and worker rights since 1991. UCLA’s Department of African American Studies was involved in 2016-17 too, joining an effort on behalf of the Los Angeles Black Worker Center to produce a report that reflects broad social concerns: “Black Liberation in Los Angeles: Building Power Through Women’s Wellness, Cooperative Work, and Transit Equity.”
“The idea is that students actually get to take the class with activists from the communities who are trying to accomplish the same things but need the guidance of an academic program,” Oberlander said. “And the students need the guidance of activists. So they learn from each other.”
Conversely, the annual Comprehensive Project is managed solely within Urban Planning. The 2016-17 team prepared a report for the Urban Waters Federal Partnership, which was titled, “Lower LA River Revitalization: An Inclusive Approach to Planning, Implementation, and Community Engagement.”
From concept to completion, a typical Comprehensive Project can stretch over a year or more. Oberlander pointed out that students entering the Luskin School in the fall will decide just six months later whether to register for the next Comprehensive Project, which won’t wrap up until more than a year later.
Thus, now is the time for potential client partners to step forward. “You can come to Luskin and you can get really great research for a third of the cost to hire somebody,” she noted.
The end of an academic year is often a hectic time for Comprehensive Project students. For example, the final presentation to the Community Economics, Health, and Equity Committee of the Lower LA River Working Group was on June 8, 2017. A final (more comprehensive) on-campus presentation took place June 13, 2017, just two days before Commencement.
Public presentations are also typical of Community Scholars. On June 17, 2017, the students gathered at Holman United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles for a rousing public review and reflection on what they had accomplished together.
“It is phenomenal to have the privilege to spend 20 weeks in a room with other organizers and thought leaders who are every day experimenting and making change on the front lines for black workers and black working class families,” said the UCLA Labor Center’s Lola Smallwood Cuevas, the 2016-17 project director.
“We didn’t solve the black jobs crisis in this 20 weeks,” she continued. “But what we did do was create the opportunity for us to get closer, to build the relationships, to build an analysis that will help us shape and continue to hone those definitions and our work together moving forward.”
Their report, which like other student research from UCLA Luskin Urban Planning students can be viewed online, focused on three aspects directly related to African American workers in Los Angeles:
- a curriculum on trauma-informed self-care for women served by the Black Workers Center;
- a feasibility study for a cooperatively owned jobs services center;
- a mobility study of the Slauson Corridor that paid particular attention to the intersection of Slauson and Western avenues, which a collision analysis found to be among L.A.’s most dangerous traffic locations.
Marque Vestal, a PhD student in history who served as a teaching assistant for Community Scholars, noted that the effort was about more than simply doing great research. While studying under Smallwood Cuevas, UCLA Luskin’s Gilda Haas and Gaye Theresa Johnson of UCLA African American Studies, the students examined issues of race, equality and empowerment through the black radical tradition.
“We suspected that something special would be crafted in that room because every week the laughter amid the planning got louder,” Vestal recalled during the presentation. “So we are here today to share that harvest of laughter and planning.”
“And there’s always the people who rise to the top with any group project who end up being the leaders,” Oberlander said. “They are usually the ones who are still working till August after they have graduated, making sure the client has exactly what they need.”
The instructor of the L.A. River project was Diana Varat JD/MA UP ’08, a planner and attorney who was part of the Luskin School’s adjunct faculty for the year. A rotating instructor approach is used for Community Scholars too. In 2015-16, UCLA Luskin’s Goetz Wolff led an analysis of the distribution of goods in Southern California that went on to win a national applied research award.
For the L.A. River project, students looked at gentrification, access and community impacts as part of their detailed analysis of the potential pitfalls of redeveloping the Lower Los Angeles River that runs through 14 cities from Vernon to Long Beach.
“As the potential of the Lower L.A. River becomes more clear, communities along the river are at a critical juncture,” said Alex Linz MURP ’17 during concluding remarks. “By committing to sustained community engagement and empowerment, river-adjacent cities have an excellent opportunity to showcase the Lower L.A. River both as a local and regional reflection of community pride.”
For 2017-18, the Comprehensive Project team will work with Distinguished Professor Emeritus Martin Wachs on the issue of transit-oriented development. Community Scholars will tackle homelessness and housing.
Abel Valenzuela, professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin, opened the celebration of 70 years of research about labor markets by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Photo by Paolo Jara-Riveros
By Stefani Ritoper
UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment
On April 11, 2017, more than 250 attendees gathered at UCLA’s Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center to celebrate the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment’s 70 years of work. In an evening with music, food and camaraderie, community and campus leaders reflected on the Institute’s long and storied history.
The theme of the evening was “UCLA’s Role in Workers’ Lives Today.” Institute director Abel Valenzuela, who is also a professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, opened the evening by posing the question: In this divided political climate, what is UCLA’s responsibility to improve workers’ lives?
Part of the answer lies in the work that the Institute has undertaken over the past seven decades, Valenzuela said. For seven decades, the Institute has conducted timely and impactful research on labor markets and how work impacts workers and their families. Through the work of its units – UCLA Labor Center, Human Resources Roundtable and the Labor Occupational Safety and Health program – the Institute has created programing to improve workers lives, researching key issues such as worker health and safety, the minimum wage, wage theft and immigrant worker issues.
“It’s amazing that you’re still here,” said History professor Robin D.G. Kelley about the Institute’s long tenure at UCLA. He spoke about the work that IRLE has done to build the capacity of worker organizations, and what this has done in turn for workers’ issues in Los Angeles. “What you’ve been able to do is shift attention to low-wage, marginalized workers. It’s not just a position of defending labor; it’s a vision of transforming society.”
UCLA alumna Ana Luz Gonzalez MA UP `02 PhD `15 and political science student Fernando Antunez spoke about the Institute’s teaching program. Gonzalez talked about her research on day laborers and wage theft, and how this research has been pivotal in advancing policy and educational programs aimed at ending wage theft among low-wage workers. Antunez talked about how work and mental health are connected, sharing the moving story of his own family as they coped with his mother’s deteriorating health.
Keynote speaker and former labor leader Maria Elena Durazo described the importance of UCLA’s commitment to working families. “It’s working families that pay for public higher education,” she said. “They are the permanent donors of the public university system.”
Durazo emphasized that working people need to protect their ability to defend their rights because many laws are not enforced. She spoke of the UCLA Labor Center’s work, partnering with worker organizations on issues such as wage theft, as well as the role of the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration in preventing worker deaths on the job.
All speakers emphasized the hopefulness that the work of the Institute brings in this current political and economic era. “These are not dark times. These are bright times,” Kelley said. “And you’re shining the light.”
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