Longtime labor educator at UMKC is out; program’s future is under review

Judy Ancel is out of her longtime job but she’s not quitting.

Ancel has been the director of the Worker Education & Labor Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City since 1988, but she lost her position this month. The program, previously known as the Institute for Labor Studies, itself is under review as the university system deals with painful budget cuts.

Ancel has been program’s sole staff member, so her layoff this month sent ripples through the Kansas City labor community. Union leaders say the non-degree program provided the only college-caliber training in workforce issues available to union members who haven’t received the same higher education as their management counterparts.

The labor studies program has fought for its existence and its funding before. According to Ancel, the program netted money for UMKC, bringing in more income than it cost the university. The university disagrees, citing a net loss.

But as unhappy as she is about the circumstances, Ancel continues to champion her ideals. For one thing, she’s housing and supporting a Honduran refugee family, a mother and four children whose father was killed.

She’s continuing to research and produce a long-running radio show focused on workforce news that’s aired at 6 p.m. Thursdays on 90.1 KKFI.

She’s conducting private, fee-based seminars for labor unions and other organizations. And she’s active with the Jobs With Justice organization, particularly to support minimum wage increases.

But she no longer has her UMKC position, which paid about $77,700 in salary and benefits. The paycheck isn’t the big deal, though; she’s most concerned that labor has lost yet another platform to give voice and power to workers.

“Without her and the labor studies program, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” said Pat Dujakovich, president of the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO. “She’s provided the education we need since there’s always been a disadvantage for organized labor.”

If you’re a pipefitter, Dujakovich said, you know that job, “but then you get elected to negotiate contracts and you have to learn about contracts, about health care, about pensions, about all the things you didn’t go to college for. And that puts working people at a real disadvantage.”

Over the years, Ancel has emerged as the Kansas City area’s pre-eminent source when the media reaches out for “the other side” in political and workplace news.

Through the labor studies program, Ancel or other lecturers taught courses on labor and the global economy, labor and politics, labor law, labor history and collective bargaining. Some classes were taken by UMKC students; others, offered for a non-degree certificate program in labor education, were available to the community at large.

“No decision has yet been made as to whether to eliminate the Worker Education and Labor Studies Program, although Ms. Ancel’s position has been eliminated,” said UMKC spokesman John Martellaro. “We are currently investigating less costly options to keep the certificate program open and, we hope, generate greater student interest.”

Only four UMKC students were most recently enrolled in the program’s classes, Martellaro said, and “we could no longer devote a full-time position to a program generating such low student interest.”

Other program enrollments were from online class participants from throughout the state, Ancel said.

The labor studies program was founded in 1985 by a previous director. It became a cooperative program in 1998 with UMKC, the University of Missouri-Columbia and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. At UMKC, the program became part of the Economics Department in 2000.

It weathered a political attack in 2011 from Andrew Breitbart’s organization and the Tea Party, but a university investigation cleared the program of wrongdoing. It navigated upheaval again in 2013 when Missouri curators ordered a reorganization from its previous status as an “institute” to a program. In 2015, its certificate classes went entirely online.

A big question — for both Ancel and UMKC leaders — is what happened to a $43,000 stipend that the labor studies program supposedly was to be granted annually, beginning in 1997, from the University of Missouri System. UMKC accounting shows no record of it coming to UMKC since 2002. Ancel thinks it was received until the 2006-07 school year, but there’s no official tracking of it.

Ancel said it’s important to consider that UMKC’s Bloch School of Business has a large faculty that teaches from a management point of view.

“Management, because of its superior education and its resources, creates an unequal playing field,” Ancel said. “Workers need similar education. They need to know their rights. They need to know how to do research. They need to know labor law and labor history, not just about unions but about working conditions overall.”

Herb Johnson, a longtime lobbyist for labor interests in Jefferson City, said the program’s elimination is a blow to unions who can’t afford to provide similar training to their members.

“Workers need to know labor history,” Johnson said. “They need communication skills, negotiating skills, how to do grievance investigations, how to prepare for arbitrations, technical media training, social media skills — things management knows. It’s discriminatory against labor to eliminate it, but this program has always seemed to be in the crosshairs.”

Bridgett Williams, formerly with the AFL-CIO and now deputy director of the Heavy Constructors Association of Greater Kansas City, currently approaches labor issues from the management side. She said state budget problems have created the UMKC challenge.

“But labor will have to rely more on their apprenticeship programs to provide this kind of education,” Williams said. “Sometimes this is where you have to be creative to solve some of your problems.”

Dujakovich said this isn’t the right time to expect labor unions to either offer funding to UMKC to restore the program or for unions to expand their own training.

“It would be brilliant if we could write checks and do that,” Dujakovich said. “But with Right to Work and Prevailing Wage and Paycheck losses (three examples of recent state legislation viewed as anti-union) and our decreased resources right now, it’s something we need that we can’t afford to get.”

Some large unions, notably the Steelworkers and United Food and Commercial Workers, sponsor sizable education programs for their members.

“But the UMKC program was open to anybody,” Dujakovich said. “That’s a big difference.”

Ancel hopes that UMKC can find a home for labor education.

“The perception is that labor is dying, so let’s stop educating the worker,” Ancel said. “That’s so wrong. Organized labor may be fighting for its life, but there will always be workers who need to know their rights, their history.”

Diane Stafford: 816-234-4359, @kcstarstafford