From the Archive: “a spirit of hostility toward organized labor”

Part of a resolution of the Illinois Federation of Labor, 1942

Part of a resolution of the Illinois Federation of Labor, 1942

I spent the last week doing research in the University of Illinois archives. Kind of what you’d expect: memos, reports in triplicate, lots of form letters. I’m looking into the ways faculty and administrators reacted to demands by organized workers that universities be more responsive to the needs of industrial workers and unions during the 1920s and 1930s. Recently, I posted a working paper on the University of California’s worker education and industrial relations programs, and this week’s research is follow up and comparison work.

Like several other states, Illinois established an industrial relations program at the end of World War II–the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations (ILIR, now the School of Labor and Employment Relations). Also, like other states the original drive for the program came from unions: in 1942, delegates at the Illinois State Federation of Labor convention passed a resolution (put forward by a group of milk truck drivers, link) that “a department be set up in the University of Illinois with properly qualified labor economists and analysts to advise and supply information which will assist the workers in their many complex problems.” As was the case in California, labor-backed Democrats and Republicans were willing–even eager–to direct large sums of money to the university in support of these programs. University officials set their sights much lower and some actively sabotaged the efforts.

By 1945, about two years after the initial discussions between unions and university administrators, the unions and their legislative allies were ready to move ahead.

State legislature to UI admin: here’s $400,000 (about $5 million today)

UI admin to State legislature: well, we really only need $25,000

State legislature: take $125,000 and get back to work.

This was basically the same conversation California had in 1939 when state-level New Dealers advanced a bill for a Labor Extension on par with the Ag. Extension. What ultimately resulted from these efforts was really not what the unions had in mind. Rather than a Labor Extension, they got Industrial Relations with labor on the side.

There were, of course, complicated reasons for this. But the primary reason had to do with how university people envisioned objectivity and knowledge vis a vis working people. There was always a much more uphill battle to get pro-labor views within the university than pro-business. For instance, in a 1943 letter Economics professor Horace Gray explains to the Provost why there is no existing program in labor economics, recounting how a series of labor economists were so poorly treated that graduate advisors in prominent economics departments warned their students not to take job offers from the UI. Later the chair of Economics attempted to hire to teach labor union courses “a man who by his writings and utterances is clearly a Fascist–a ‘business administration’ expert who for large retainers serves the interests of certain anti-union employers in Chicago.” And when they finally did hire a labor economists, the junior scholar was told that renewal of his two-year appointment “would depend on his refraining from any association with labor leaders and from participation in the activities of labor unions. He was also warned that in his teaching he was expected to be ‘objective’ and to refrain from expressing any sympathy with organized labor.” Gray concluded that, despite leadership turnover in the department, “There will still remain in the College, both among members of the staff and administrative heads, a lack of sympathy and a spirit of hostility toward organized labor.”

Seventy years on things have changed. But not that much. In either state.

Full disclosure: I was faculty at the Labor Education Program at the UI ILIR for a few years. There are some fine labor folks there.

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