Earlier this summer, when UCLA labor studies alumna Ashley Michel Flores was approached by organizers to take part in a civil disobedience action supporting more pay for hotel workers — which would lead to her arrest alongside colleagues and activists near Los Angeles International Airport —she didn’t think twice about signing up.
Yet as the day neared, when she began to have second thoughts, she recalled lessons from the labor and social movements class taught by Rev. James Lawson Jr., a labor studies faculty member. Martin Luther King Jr. once referred to Lawson, his close friend and fellow civil and labor rights leader, as “the leading strategist of nonviolence in the world.”
“Initially I was a little worried for selfish reasons … but those were just fleeting thoughts,” said Flores. “I was thinking back to the history of civil disobedience — especially with hospitality workers in L.A. — and when organizers pitched it as the largest civil disobedience in L.A.’s history, I wanted to do it.”
A first-generation college student and the granddaughter of Bracero farmworkers, Flores was born in California’s Central Valley and raised by a domestic worker in the San Diego-Tijuana border region. She’s part of the growing number of first-gen UCLA Latino labor studies graduates who are moving the needle on social and economic justice across the state.
“From unions to government officials, I can’t count how many times I’ve been told that our labor studies graduates are among the most effective workers they’ve ever hired,” said Chris Zepeda-Millán, professor of public policy and Chicana/o and Central American studies and holder of the UCLA labor studies chair.
In 2019, UCLA became the first UC campus with a labor studies major, five years after offering the program as a minor. Housed within the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, the degree program serves a diverse — though heavily Latino and female — student body that reflects the demographics of working-class Los Angeles and California.
“Labor studies students reflect Los Angeles and its workforce: a multiracial city with a Latinx majority,” said Tobias Higbie, the institute’s director and a labor historian. “We are preparing students to be among the next generation of leaders for the organized workers movement.”
UCLA labor studies teaches some 1,500 students and enrolls nearly 200 majors and minors each year. Thanks to a historic state budget increase, similar programs inspired by UCLA’s model will soon expand to other UC campuses.
In honor of Latino Heritage Month, meet these labor studies alumni who are working to help rectify the workplace and economic injustices they’ve come to know intimately.
Ashley Flores: Advancing the community school model
Flores started UCLA as a global studies major. But after taking labor studies-sponsored courses such as the Community Scholars Program, she realized she was more passionate about tackling problems facing local communities. She switched her major and graduated in 2021.
Her Community Scholars class explored the practice and meaning of community schools in Los Angeles in partnership with Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a local economic policy think tank, shortly after the 2019 Los Angeles Unified School District teachers strike.
An internship the following summer led to a job offer as an organizer for LAANE’s education campaign. Today, Flores surveys parents at local schools about green spaces, restorative justice, mental health and other issues.
She canvasses neighborhoods and prepares parents to make public comments at district meetings. Her work helps bridge the gap between the district and families that have been historically excluded from critical decision-making processes.
“Traditionally involved parents tend to be middle class,” she said. “(They) have an understanding of how schools function, how budgets work, and we really want to change that (because) LAUSD is a high-need district and serves a majority of students of color.”
Flores also continues to engage with labor unions and community-based organizations. As a labor scholar, she’s particularly inspired by the growing solidarity among workers of various sectors.
“In L.A., where it really is a tale of two cities — there’s fabulous wealth here, but also so many more people who are really struggling to make ends meet — there’s a charge in the air to stand up,” she said.
Maria Patiño: Striving for development without displacement
Maria Patiño grew up in East Los Angeles and graduated from UCLA in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in Chicana/o Studies and minors in labor studies, public affairs and urban and regional planning. Her coursework allowed her to explore workplace conditions that were close to home.
She remembers seeing her dad get laid off from a local garment factory. Then there were the long hours both of her parents worked as tortilla factory workers, which made it challenging for them to get involved in community improvement efforts.
Patiño carries these memories into her work as director of policy and advocacy at Strategic Actions for a Just Economy, a member-based organization that fights for renters’ rights, healthy homes and equitable development in South Los Angeles. She monitors housing and land-use policies across Los Angeles County and provides policy recommendations.
At SAJE, Patiño has been involved in enacting housing initiatives such as Measure ULA, also known as the “mansion tax,” and Measure JJJ (the“Build Better LA Initiative”), which imposed new wage and affordable housing requirements for certain development projects.
Patiño also surveys local residents and attends elected official visits and local legislative hearings. She applies what she learned in labor studies to inform residents about their rights —so they can speak up about policies that may impact their lives.
Residents “are taking the time out of their day, their busy routine to take action, and that’s really powerful,” she said. “It makes me think about my mom, who was never really able to get as involved because of work.”
Sebastian Aguilar Tinajero: Making change from the halls of Sacramento
Labor studies and political science alum Sebastian Aguilar Tinajero grew up about 20 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border in El Cajon, California. As the son of a domestic and restaurant worker, issues related to labor and immigration status were part of his everyday life.
Growing up, he saw how hard it was for his dad to find necessary health care resources after a work injury; language barriers and his immigration status posed challenges. Upon arriving at UCLA, Tinajero finally felt seen and understood in his labor studies courses. They reflected his own life experience, unlike the traditional political science curriculum.
“I never thought our life stories could be in academia,” he said. “For a research paper for one of my labor studies classes, I interviewed my mom on her work as a domestic worker — and how she endured wage theft.”
After graduating in 2022, Tinajero was selected to join the Capital Fellows Program, a nationally recognized public policy fellowship in the California Legislature. He recently worked as a legislative aide in the office of Assemblymember Laura Friedman on issues related to labor, higher education, arts and entertainment and human services and brought his unique lens to this experience.
“Every day, I see advocates outside of the building — the Service Employees International Union and other labor activists advocating for different pieces of legislation. I meet with them as well,” said Tinajero. “When I hear them, I think back to what I learned in my classes.”
Going forward, Tinajero hopes to secure a permanent legislative aide position and help support immigrant worker rights from the halls of Sacramento.
“I think there’s still so much that we need to do to help undocumented workers out: Health care for all hasn’t passed yet and also unemployment protections,” he said. “Economically speaking, they pay their state taxes, but they don’t receive the resources.”