Employment and Jobs

Lessons and Leadership To Foster Economic Justice for Illinois Workers

November 14, 2022  • Alison Dickson & Economic Opportunities Program

Alison Dickson, Senior Instructor, School of Labor and Employment Relations, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Photo of Alison Dickson

“We see a direct link between the national epidemics of wage theft and other violations of workers’ rights and financial security for the lowest wage workers,” says Alison Dickson, a senior instructor in labor education for the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC). “Accordingly, our adult education efforts focus on instruction on employment and labor laws, collective action and bargaining, and organizing for workplace justice,” Alison states. Within the UIUC School of Labor and Employment Relations, the Labor Education Program (LEP) houses a number of vital teaching, research, and leadership development programs aimed at fostering economic and social justice for Illinois workers. Established in 1947, LEP serves as a statewide educational and research program with offices in both Champaign and Chicago.

Alison and her faculty colleagues at LEP strongly believe that education plays an important role in helping every American worker realize the promise of economic opportunity. Through extension programming and non-credit classes, LEP educates over 2,000 workers statewide on an annual basis about their rights on the job and best practices for improving working conditions and job quality. Customized classes are provided to workers from labor unions ranging from postal workers and firefighters to steel workers and electricians. Alison says, “LEP’s core teaching objectives across its numerous program areas aim to provide workers with the knowledge and skills necessary to promote equitable workplaces, enforce employment rights, build effective democratic unions, develop future worker leaders, ensure a safe and healthy work environment, and advance economic justice.”

Diversity, equity and inclusion serve as guiding drivers of LEP’s extensive leadership development initiatives. These efforts include longstanding partnerships with Chicago-area worker centers to develop and provide Spanish-language leadership and organizing programs for worker and community activists. Additionally, LEP faculty run the Regina V. Polk Women’s Labor Leadership Programs, a series of women’s leadership development programs for working women that creates an open and invigorating space for rank and file members, union activists, and community leaders to learn from skilled instructors and one another.

Worker Rights’ Curriculum for the Workforce Development Field

Alison recognized the need for worker rights’ education to be integrated with workforce development some time ago. “Students who are aware of their rights at work can protect themselves against wage theft, illegal discrimination, workplace injuries, and other violations of the law,” Alison states. In 2014, Alison convened a team from the Chicago Jobs Council and the Great Lakes Center for Occupational Health and Safety at the University of Illinois at Chicago to develop the nation’s first worker rights’ curriculum for the workforce development field.

In 2015, the University of Illinois published the first edition of the Workers’ Rights for Workforce Development curriculum, an open-access curriculum housed online focused on connecting job training to workers’ rights education. Its eight chapters cover the breadth of workplace rights and consist of activities designed to be used in workshops and training and integrated into existing workforce programs. Theis how-to-manual includes content and activities on workplace rights that workforce development professionals can build into their training and workforce development programs. Topics include wage and hour laws and protections, discrimination in the workplace, the rights of immigrant workers, laws around leave, health and safety topics, and information about collective bargaining. The curriculum provides a range of learning resources including videos, legal documents, illustrations, quizzes, fact sheets, and more. The intent of the curriculum is to provide organizations with a set of resources to choose from based on the needs of the workers they serve.

Since the release of its first edition in 2015, over 500 individuals from more than 150 organizations and 20 states have downloaded the curriculum. Additionally, more than 2,200 Illinois workers and 200 frontline staff from 53 organizations across Illinois have been trained directly by LEP staff on workers’ rights for non-union workers.

Research, advocacy, and thought leadership are also important strategies for the School of Labor and Employment Relations at UIUC and the Labor Education Program, which produces research about the economy and labor markets, labor unions and unionized workers, low-wage workers, and other job quality topics. LEP started the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) in 2015. Recent research from PMCR is focused on how policies and economic forces create disproportionate impacts on job quality for women and people of color. In addition to teaching, Alison is also a leading researcher in supporting this work. She has conducted studies on issues such as lack of paid leave, variable work schedules, and occupational health and safety violations that have led to a number of research reports and presentations.

One recent example of this exciting work is Alison’s involvement in helping the state define and measure job quality. According to Alison, “Our UIUC research team, in partnership with Governor Pritzker’s Future of Work Taskforce, has developed a framework of job quality in Illinois — the Employment Quality Index.” The framework uses quantitative and qualitative data on the experiences of 7,000 Illinois workers, ranging from the pay and benefits to their job satisfaction and working conditions. “Findings were applied to develop a public-facing online dashboard for use in labor market policy and practice decision making,” and the team anticipates that “results from the study will likely reinforce the need to adopt a statewide minimum standard for work hours and ‘decent work’ as part of the need to rebuild stable work and worker well-being post COVID.”

Alison is excited about how the data from the project might drive and influence changes in the workforce development field too. Alison helped lead the launch of Quality Vanguard, a coalition of leaders from the workforce development field and elsewhere who are focused on building the voice and power of workers into the workforce system. Part of this work aspires to shift workforce funding to incentivize job placements toward high-road employers and good jobs. The data from the Employment Quality Index will be key to that advocacy work and in supporting workforce development organizations and funders to shift their practices.


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Lessons and Leadership To Foster Economic Justice for Illinois Workers: A Profile of @AspenJobQuality Fellow Alison Dickson, senior instructor for @IL_Labor_Edu.

[email protected]_Labor_Edu trains workers to promote equity, enforce rights, build unions, develop leaders, ensure workplace safety, and advance economic justice. Read more in this profile of senior instructor Alison Dickson, an @AspenJobQuality Fellow.

Alison Dickson is a senior instructor for @IL_Labor_Edu, where diversity, equity, and inclusion serve as guiding drivers of leadership development. This includes partnering with local worker centers and running a series of programs for working women.

Workers’ Rights for Workforce Development — the brainchild of @IL_Labor_Edu’s Alison Dickson — is an open-access curriculum for the #wkdev field, with content on wage and hour laws, discrimination, immigrant rights, paid leave, health, safety, and more.

“Our adult education efforts focus… on employment and labor laws, [because] students who are aware of their rights at work can protect themselves against wage theft, illegal discrimination, workplace injuries, and other violations of the law.”


Learn more

Alison Dickson is a member of the Aspen Institute’s Job Quality Fellowship, Class of 2022-23. The Job Quality Fellowship is convened by the Economic Opportunities Program.

The Economic Opportunities Program advances strategies, policies, and ideas to help low- and moderate-income people thrive in a changing economy. Follow us on social media and join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on publications, blog posts, events, and other announcements.