In recent weeks, former United States Labor Secretary and current UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich has rushed around California, seeking media coverage as he urged on the participants at Occupy Los Angeles and Occupy Oakland. He has done so, even while it is clear that in Oakland particularly the nearby businesses were being hurt and workers laid off. Reich’s behavior is in keeping with his latest persona, as populist and man of the people.
The populism is phony. For years, Mr. Reich has received hundreds of thousands from the large corporations and industry associations (he now attacks) for “speech making” and other vaguely defined consulting. He has been completely absent from the job training programs and community programs that actually benefit California workers.
Let me start with one experience I had with populist Reich. It was in early 1999, my first year as director of our state labor department, the Employment Development Department (EDD). Governor Davis was concerned about the low wage workforce in California: the farm workers, the nurse assistants in long term care facilities, the non-union hospitality workers. At EDD, we decided to contact former labor officials to get their thoughts on job ladder/skills upgrading efforts.
The EDD office called Mr. Reich. We did not speak with him—he did not take calls, at least at that time. Reich’s assistant, though, informed us that Mr. Reich would consider coming to California at some payment, I believe $5,000-$10,000. What I do recall clearly is that as part of any arrangement, Mr. Reich required a first class airline ticket. In other words, he might consider coming to California to discuss low wage workers if we gave him a large sum of money and a first class airline ticket.
For some time before this incident, Mr. Reich had been engaged in a lucrative speech-making business: charging thousands of dollars, sometimes more, for speechmaking. The clients often were industry associations or large companies, who might otherwise have used the money for productive uses, such as research or scholarships.
In a free society, Mr. Reich thankfully has the right to receive as much money as he can receive for making a speech—even if it is difficult to see the speech as adding any significant social value. But as he lives off the wealth generated by others, as he receives more in one speech than many workers make in one month, he might think twice about holding himself out as a man of the people.
All of the previous EDD directors I have known, including Gloria Becerra, Doug Patino, Kaye Kiddoo, and Victoria Bradshaw, as well as our most recent director, Patrick Henning , have become deeply involved as volunteers in community job training after leaving office, or volunteered in other capacities. For myself, I spend around 30% of my time on six community job training efforts, involving a range of populations. Over the past few years since Mr. Reich has been in California, I have never seen him involved in any actual job training or placement effort. There is nothing he does that actually helps a job seeker in need find a job.
Of course, this may be due to how busy he is. For Reich, there is always one more New York Times reporter to schmooze , one more television program to try to get on, one more uncritical Salon or Huffington Post editorial assistant to court.
Mr. Reich is by no means the only member of the elite in California to try to get publicity off the idealism/economic struggles of the Occupy movement. His hypocrisy, though, is among the worst, and it should not go unnoticed.