ALR Dialogue: Elaine Bernard

Professor Elaine Bernard is Executive Director of the Labor and Worklife Program (LWP) at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Trade Union Program (HTUP). The LWP, along with the Murphy Institute and the labor center at UCLA, is a founding partner of the ALR/U.S.-China Exchange Program.­


Q: Can you talk about The Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and its interest in China-US labor relations?

The LWP maintains a keen interest in global labor issues at many levels and we believe that what happens to Chinese workers and Chinese unions over the next century will be important not only to them, but to the entire world.  The LWP first sought to understand struggles over labor conditions in such key sectors as the apparel and textile industries.  But we have also carried out considerable work on international migration in the higher end of the labor market, particularly among science and engineering workers.  China remains a significant force in traditional industrial sectors such as apparel, but the nation has also made tremendous leaps in science-based industry.  The LWP leadership has sought greater engagement with Chinese unions and Chinese workers, not only in studying the labor market, but also on issues such as negotiations, collective bargaining and international comparative labor relations.  

Q: What are the current priorities for the Labor and Worklife Program? How have those priorities shifted over the years?

The Labor and Worklife Program was founded in the early twenty-first century, as a research and public policy center at Harvard Law School focused on labor and the world of work.  The LWP grew out of the Harvard Trade Union Program, an executive education program for labor leaders founded in 1942.  While the HTUP continues to train many international labor leaders through its annual 6 week intensive residential program, under the auspices of the LWP, many short term union leadership programs have been developed on topics such as strategic planning, leadership and organizational change.  As well, under the leadership of faculty co-chair Richard B. Freeman, the program has sponsored many young Chinese scholars to come to Harvard.  We have sufficient number of Chinese scholars in most years that we now run a seminar with our visiting scholars and others interested in studying labor and labor relations in China.

Q: What are your thoughts on LWP’s partnership with the Murphy Institute and UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education to "Advance the Field of Labor Relations" through the US-China Exchange project?

The Harvard LWP has welcomed collaborating with the Murphy Institute and UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education.  Our programs have demonstrated why universities can benefit immensely from a labor focus on China, as well as in many other nations around the world.  There are numerous Business Schools that approach China from the standpoint of Human Resources (HR) but in contrast, the programs at the Murphy Institute and at UCLA are more open to understanding the vital role of labor movements, the world of work, and the profound struggles of millions of workers. The LWP has been fortunate to work with you and grow our relationships from your direct knowledge and connections with key labor scholars and worker advocates in China.

Q: What research areas related to China most interest you?

The LWP carries out significant research on China supervised by our faculty co-chair Richard B. Freeman, who is generally regarded as one of the top labor economists in the world.  Some of the topics pursued include labor migration within China, international labor migration particularly of scientists and engineers, the crisis of inequality, and questions about the evolving power structure in a nation ruled by the Communist Party but now featuring new concentrations of wealth among billionaire business elites.  There remain pressing questions about the dominance of global transnational firms in many economic sectors and in the export-driven economy, but there are some China-based firms looking to have an impact in the world economy.   Of course, we are always engaged in trying to find ways to improve labor conditions for workers around the world.  Finally, the LWP has been involved in building the China Gazetteer Project, an effort to digitalize China’s data at the local, county, and city levels.  With 2000 counties and cities included with data over 65 years, the China Gazetteer Project will eventually enable social science researchers to tackle many pressing issues confronting contemporary China.