Abel Valenzuela, the acclaimed UCLA scholar of immigrant and low-wage workforce issues, has just begun a new role on campus as the new director of the UCLA Institute for Research on Labor and Employment. Founded in 1945, the institute conducts research, teaching and service around the economy, jobs and workforce issues. It is home to the UCLA Labor Center, Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program, Human Resources Roundtable and UCLA’s labor studies minor.
Talk a little bit about your personal background and what brought you to this work.
I was born and raised here in Los Angeles and city has been a great inspiration for my life. My parents were hardworking immigrants — my father an upholsterer and my mother a public school preschool teacher. From them I learned the value of hard work and education, which informed my own trajectory in life. I am the proud product of the University of California, and after completing my doctorate at MIT, returned Los Angeles to teach and have been here ever since.
This city has so much to offer, from where my kids go to school and play, to the food, diversity, and opportunities workers have. I feel lucky that during my over 20 years as faculty here at UCLA, I have been able to focus my own professional attention in research, teaching and service towards Los Angeles.
What makes Los Angeles a special place to conduct research about the economy, jobs and workers’ issues?
Los Angeles is the harbinger for the future. It’s a city that has driven the national debate on workforce issues such as the minimum wage, wage theft, youth employment and immigration. These key issues are shaping the conversation about the future of work nationwide.
This especially holds true as the economy changes rapidly and we are starting to experience the more creative and newer parts of the economy, including the gig economy. While the Internet brings us together, through food, culture and transportation, we also have to better understand the quality of jobs that this new economy brings.
What do you think UCLA’s role is to the community? And what’s the role of students and faculty in this?
I think one of the great things about UCLA is that it’s a public institution. This means that our academic leaders, students and administration have an obligation and responsibility to serve the public. Just being in Los Angeles isn’t enough. We have to be an extension and an integrated part of Los Angeles.
And we have done this since UCLA has existed. By linking the research and resources of UCLA and with community-based organizations embedded in Los Angeles’s diverse neighborhoods, I think we provide an important service to L.A. and the broader community. Creative things happen when students, faculty and community members invested in change work and learn alongside one another.
In my years at UCLA, the most popular courses I have taught have been ones with strong service learning components. In Chicano studies, I teach a course called “Barrio Service Learning.” We place students in community based organizations for 10 weeks. They learn hands-on, by doing on the ground, and then we come back to class and reflect. They do assignments to understand these organizations the community in which they are embedded.
This is also why UCLA labor studies are growing exponentially. Students are applying for the first time what they learn in class in the real world. They get excited about what they can do after UCLA. Students who graduate from fields like Chicano studies and labor studies grow civil society. These courses reward people who want to make a difference.
Why is it so important to think about the economy, jobs, and workers issues?
For years, I’ve been studying urban poverty and my go-to solution was around work. It makes sense because work is an obligation. We’re brought up to do it and we often define ourselves by it. We need to figure out is how work can transition people out of poverty, not into poverty. If you’re working full time, you shouldn’t be poor. The focus of my research has been how to either upgrade work or upgrade workers’ skills.
What are your big ideas and hopes as you take on this new role as director of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment?
UCLA is in the business of discovery and science and using that science to make change. My colleagues who study the impacts and intervention related to cancer are serious about finding a cure for cancer. In that same spirit, the work that we do at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment is to use social science to ensure workers live dignified lives and are able to support their families.
One of the things I think the institute has done well is to make our research relevant. We’ve done important research on the minimum wage, wage theft and workers’ health and safety. This work has influenced the conversation on recent policies that have passed in California, such as the minimum wage raise and increased protections for workers around wage theft.
As director, I plan to continue to strengthen this work. I also look forward to exploring more issues, such as the gig economy, young workers and immigrant workers. One great privilege of being at a place like UCLA is that we can devote time and resources to think about global trends that impact workers. My hope is to push forward and expand this dialogue so that we can address the most pressing issues facing working people today and in the future.