From the factory to the academy, tracking ‘real America’

Sylvia Allegretto’s grandmother spent most of her working life in a carbon plant. Her father, a housepainter, belonged to the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades for 40 years. Her mother had barely retired after 25 years in a plant that made brake linings for trains and trucks when the owners relocated to North Carolina.

Sylvia Allegretto

Sylvia Allegretto (Peg Skorpinski photos)

The now-shuttered factory was a block from the family’s home, and Allegretto knew its sounds and smells long before she went to work there herself, running a huge industrial saw.

There’s a certain storybook quality, then, to this child of the working class growing up to be a UC Berkeley labor economist. If you ask Allegretto, it’s more like a fairy tale.

“I’m the luckiest person in the world to be doing what I’m doing,” she says, taking a rare break from her current labors, crunching statistics and cranking out policy briefs. “It took a lot of luck, and a lot of people believing in me.”

Among those who believed were Jared Bernstein, later a top adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, and Berkeley economics professor Michael Reich, director of the campus’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, where she doggedly mines economic data to identify winners and losers in the nation’s slow climb out of the depths of the Great Recession.

More pivotal, perhaps, were a couple of women she met in Boulder, Colo., during a long stint as a waitress. “We’d drink beer and margaritas and shoot pool,” she remembers. “Of course, I’d spent a lot of time in bars, so I was a pretty good shot.”

For the record, much of that time she was on the clock. And she didn’t tend bar as part of a research project, or to help pay her way through graduate school. In fact, for a decade after she got her bachelor’s degree, Allegretto never dreamed of returning to academia as a grad student, much less as a Berkeley researcher.

“I must have had 25 different jobs,” she says, many not just forgettable but forgotten. “Low-wage work, a lot of waitressing, bartending. I painted, worked in factories. I did all kinds of things.”

In Arizona, where she worked for a manufacturer of printed circuit boards, she bristled at having to clock in and out for breaks, and got her “first taste of that crazy ‘right-to-work’ thing” — laws, now on the books in 23 states, that ban so-called union shops, thereby allowing workers to opt out of joining an established bargaining unit. It was “quite an education” for a kid from rural Ridgway, Pa., in the northwest part of a state where, as recently as 1989, better than one in every five workers was a union member.

In Boulder, her new friends — University of Colorado professors of business and economics, respectively — knew of her interest in labor history, and pressed her to study economics in grad school. Allegretto, an indifferent undergrad who’d dropped the only econ class she ever took “in about five minutes,” resisted.

She also thought she was too old to return to school. “I was already well into my 30s,” she explains. “I was like, ‘How am I going to do this?'”

Meanwhile, her boss was making her clean the restaurant’s bathrooms when her shift was over, after she’d gathered her tips and punched out. Her friends persisted in urging a different path. Finally, after years as a holdout, she decided to take their advice.

“They changed my life,” she says.

The view from Main Street

Allegretto had just earned her Ph.D. from Colorado in 2003 when she landed a research spot with the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank whose heavyweight board of directors includes Richard Trumka, now president of the AFL-CIO, and Robert Reich, the former U.S. labor secretary and current Berkeley professor of public policy.

Jared Bernstein, then a staff economist, and Lawrence Mishel, EPI’s president, “took me under their wings,” she says, delighted to have a “working-class hick from up north in Pennsylvania” on the team. She loved working at EPI, too, but not life inside the Beltway. After her best friend in town moved away, Allegretto noticed a listing in JOE, the monthly “Job Opportunities for Economists,” for an economist at Berkeley. She submitted her modest CV, never expecting to get an offer. But she did.

By mid-2007 she and Michael Reich had co-founded the Center on Wage and Employment Dynamics, where she documents economic trends affecting working families, from the state of the state’s labor market to the supposed job-creating benefits of “right to work” laws. In addition to conventional academic papers, she generates a steady stream of plain-English policy briefs, makes regular appearances on radio and TV and is frequently quoted in the press.

Allegretto

CWED (pronounced see-wed) “is about doing good, rigorous work, and then getting it out there in a way that’s easily digestible by people from academics on down,” she says. “I’ve always said that if I can’t explain what’s happening to someone like my mother, who was uneducated, then I’m not really doing a very good job. I mean, we’re talking about workers, right? If I can’t get regular workers to understand what I’m trying to tell people about them, then it’s all for naught.”

And what’s happening, she says, is that corporate profits are skyrocketing, “yet the vast majority aren’t getting anywhere, and in fact are losing significant ground from year to year.”

“The big split between productivity and wages that occurred in the ’70s and ’80s is now growing by leaps and bounds — basically, that’s telling us that workers are not getting their fair share,” she says. “I’ve been trying over the past few years to keep jobs front and center, because in the longer narrative of the Great Recession, we pivoted away from jobs and Main Street as soon as Wall Street got bailed out.”

The Occupy Wall Street movement, she believes, has played a vital role in shifting the country’s focus from budget deficits to income inequality. (She credits fellow Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez for his groundbreaking research on the plight of the 99 percent.) That’s critical, she says, because corporations have not only hijacked the economy, they’ve all but hijacked the national conversation.

“They got what they wanted, they blew up the entire economy, we bailed them out, and then they come back and fight tooth and nail — the financial industry spent half a billion dollars last year on lobbyists — to stop any kind of regulation that would keep this from happening again,” Allegretto says. “And what do they say? It all happened because of too much regulation, it happened because of the Obama healthcare bill, most of which isn’t even in effect yet? The problem is uncertainty, it’s public-sector workers, it’s pensions?

“The problem,” she says, “is that people don’t have any money, that thousands of people lost their homes, lost their savings, that 25 million people have been unemployed and underemployed, and wages are stagnating. That’s what the problem is.”

That analysis, she insists, is driven by data. “Everything I do is backed up by the data,” she says. “I don’t want to argue. I just want to say, ‘Let’s look at reality.’ Because right now, there are just all these narratives floating around.”

Yet economics, for Allegretto, is admittedly personal. During her years in the D.C. bubble, she recalls, she would urge her colleagues to “go to my hometown and belly up to the bar for a weekend, you know, and talk to the people who’ve lost their jobs, talk to the guys coming off the third shift. That’s where you find out about ‘real America.'”

Above all, perhaps, she knows that whatever the data may show, perspective matters.

“Maybe some people think all the wealth going to the top 1 percent, or 10 percent, is OK, that they’re getting their just due,” she says. “That’s when you get away from the facts, and you have to say, ‘To my way of thinking, this is a huge problem.’

“You go from the empirical to a judgment call, the moral part of it. And for me, the question is always, Is this system working for people like my brothers and my sister and my mom and my dad and my aunts and uncles, people who come from where I come from, small-town, rural America?

“That,” she adds, “is who I’m trying to speak for.”