At the turn of the 20th century social and economic reform scholars like Richard T. Ely at Johns Hopkins and John R. Commons at the University of Wisconsin studied the interaction of employees in the world of work. During that same time frame, Samuel Gompers, first president of the American Federation of Labor was asked the very simple question, “What does labor want?” He replied with this statement about creating a more just and equitable society, “What do we want? More schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning, less crime; more leisure, less greed; more justice, less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”
It is not surprising that university and college based labor studies/labor education trace their roots to the same period. Not all of the early programs stood the test of time, but the oldest continuous example is the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers started in 1924. By 1937, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the 1935 National Labor Relations Act constitutional thereby establishing both organized labor and collective bargaining as a public good.
Nearly 40 years later Utah’s Senator Orrin Hatch put it this way, “There are always going to be people who take advantage of workers. Unions even that out to their credit. We need them to level the field between labor and management. If you didn't have unions, it would be very difficult for even enlightened employers to not take advantage of workers on wages and working conditions, because of [competition from] rivals. I'm among the first to say that I believe in unions.”
Organized labor has been credited with negotiating contracts that not only benefitted unionized employees, but which became benchmarks for non-union employers as well. Collective bargaining and its “spill over” effect are acknowledged for helping to broadly expand the American middle class. Even conservative columnist George Will acknowledged as much when he wrote, “I think American labor unions get a large share of the credit for making us a middle-class country.” Any objective view of history reveals the important role that organized labor has played in expanding democracy in and out of the workplace, improving our national standard of living, advancing and protecting employee rights and dignity, and securing safe and healthy workplaces.
University based labor education grew following World War II when unions and higher education began a partnership to provide a wide range of noncredit university-level education and training aimed at “enhancing then organizational and administrative proficiency and bargaining expertise of the unions.”
This public service outreach model came to Nebraska in 1980 with the establishment of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s (UNO) William Brennan Institute for Labor Studies. The Institute acts as a bridge extending the resources of the university to the broader Nebraska community thereby making its resources more readily available to Nebraskans and their labor organizations.
The Institute has a statewide responsibility to provide direct hands-on education, training, and consultation to unions, their staff, leaders, and members to help them become fully engaged citizens advocating for their full rights in the workplace and the community. The Institute accomplishes this by providing the education and skills training needed for effectively meeting the challenges provided by an ever changing economy, workplace, and workforce and by expanding public awareness about the role, significance and contributions of unions in our state and nation.
Because too few Nebraskans appreciate the significant role unions have played in the promotion of individual rights and the economic well-being of our workforce, the Institute also engages in outreach efforts to expand the public awareness about the contributions organized labor has made and continues to make to our democratic society.