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UC Interns Plunge Into Labor Movement

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Delia Herrera learned something this summer she hadn’t been taught at UCLA.

Humility.

“Sometimes as students we come out here thinking we know it all, just because we read books,” said Herrera, a strong-willed UCLA senior who graduated Saturday from an unusual summer internship program. “And we don’t.”

She was among 28 undergraduate students from University of California campuses statewide who just completed an internship set up by the UCLA Center for Labor Research & Education. All were placed with unions and workers’ groups to help with a range of activities--organizing campaigns, contract fights, assisting workers and other hands-on tasks.

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With Los Angeles as the focal point of a renewed union activism, much of it involving immigrant workers, the program’s architects decided to design a format in which students would not simply study labor. They would live it.

Each participant was placed with a specific union or union-linked workers’ project. They received a $400-a-week stipend and were provided with apartments in Koreatown. Many worked 12-hour days or more. The weekly agenda also included lectures on labor history and other relevant topics, along with role-playing training sessions and “debriefings” about the experience.

Herrera helped on a fledgling campaign to organize private security guards, a largely nonunion group.

“Your success has a lot to do with the way you approach people, the rap you use, being humble with them,” said Herrera, who arrived in California as an 8-year-old from Mexico with her parents. “You have to make sure people know that you respect their work.”

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The union term is “blitzing,” approaching workers who may be targeted for future unionizing drives. It is a difficult skill that not everyone can adjust to.

“I was really nervous at first,” acknowledged Marcelle Cohen, a 26-year-old working on a master’s degree in comparative literature at UC Irvine who participated in a related internship program for graduate students. “It’s kind of difficult to go up to people you don’t really know.”

In recent years, college campuses have been hotbeds of support for organized labor and related issues. Students nationwide have demanded that universities adopt “living wage” policies and ensure that collegiate apparel is not manufactured in sweatshops.

The undergraduate interns selected from more than 100 applicants came from a range of ethnic, socioeconomic and geographical backgrounds, said Daniel Kato, one of three coordinators. The hope is that funding will exist for a second class of interns next summer, he said.

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Reflecting the new California, many of the students have immigrant roots. Many also have activist histories on campus. Their idealism is readily apparent. Some spoke of the eight-week experience in transcendent terms.

“I realize this is what I want to do for the rest of my life: work with people who are undocumented,” said Candice Kim, a UC Santa Barbara senior.

Kim’s parents are Korean immigrants whose Koreatown boutique was burned down during the 1992 riots, she said, adding that her mother sold her wedding ring to help finance Kim’s private education. This summer, Kim worked with a garment district center that provides aid to apparel workers, mostly Latino immigrants.

“What am I going to do with the rest of my life? Accrue wealth, buy a nice house, a car? Those things don’t interest me,” said the petite, bespectacled Kim. “All I really want to do is to take what I’ve been given and return it to the community.”

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Jazmin Ochoa, a literature major from UC Berkeley, said the experience had also shifted her career direction. Like her father, who organizes immigrant laborers, Ochoa also now wants to work as a union organizer. She spent the summer handing out leaflets and otherwise defending the embattled living wage ordinance in Santa Monica.

“I guess I kind of resisted [activism] until now by going the English literature-poetry route,” said Ochoa, who was reared in Pasadena. “I’ve done a lot of editing and writing, but I grew up on the picket lines.”

Nic Ramos, entering his junior year at UC Irvine, worked this summer with clerical employees in the Los Angeles Superior Court. He was initially skeptical about the unglamorous posting, but was pleasantly surprised about the assignment.

“At first I said, ‘This is not the Justice for Janitors campaign that we all look for,’ ” recalled Ramos, from San Diego County. “But it was a real eye-opening experience.”

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Aiding the effort was strong support from organized labor in Los Angeles, which has been the site of several major organizing campaigns in recent years.

“This gives the students a taste of the labor movement,” said Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, who spoke at the graduation ceremony.

“They learn it is not all about corporate America,” continued Contreras, who, as a teenage farm worker, never attended college. “If you’re a college student, and you have some kind of a social conscience, where else do you find a career?”


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