Historically, the only occasions that the Associated Builders and Contractors pays much attention to education is when the subject could affect the bottom lines of their affiliated nonunion contractors.
The latest case in point involves the pressure the ABC is putting on their Republican friends in the Michigan Legislature to dock Michigan State University $500,000 or more if the university continues to administer a training program for building trades unions.
Nearly a year ago, North America’s Building Trades Unions/AFL-CIO made an agreement with three sites across the nation, one of them MSU, to provide coursework for the Building Trades Academy. The academy, offered through MSU’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, provides “educational programs that offer useful and practical skill building for Building Trades union staff and leadership and capacity building for their unions.”
The agreement called for building trades labor unions to contract with and pay a highly regarded institute of higher education, Michigan State University, to administer and oversee courses that they would like to see available. Some of the coursework includes “Contract Negotiations in the Construction Industry,” “Organizational and Membership Development in the Construction Industry,” and “Labor Law in the Construction Industry.”
So what’s the problem? Labor unions get the training setting they want at a great university. In an era of public education budget cutting, MSU gets an infusion of half a million dollars. No taxpayer money is involved. But that’s not good enough for the ABC or some Republican legislators.
“Such activities lack legitimacy when performed by an academic institution,” said Chris Fisher, president of Michigan chapter of ABC, said in a statement. “Would the university support a similar program geared toward union busting?” Fisher added: “There may be a place for union organizing but it is through the union halls, not the halls of a public land-grant university.”
Fisher’s immediate question is a false one: while union organizing is sanctioned and even encouraged by the National Labor Relations Act, “union busting” is illegal. (Of course, U.S. companies spend millions on lawyers and groups like the ABC to advise them on how to work around those federal labor laws, but that’s another story).
But in Michigan’s Republican-controlled Legislature, the ABC’s will is apparently being done. State Rep. Al Pscholka (R-Stevensville), chairman of the Higher Education Subcommittee, called the building trades program “sloppy” and said that some of the seminar’s subject matter was “inappropriate.”
“I believe in academic freedom and know you’re going to have difficult subjects that are taught in a university,” he told MLive, “but this is a case where I think they’re almost encouraging labor disputes, and I don’t think that’s right.”
Pscholka somehow gleaned that the courses would be “almost encouraging labor disputes” from the course titles alone, which indicate nothing of the sort. As a result, ready or not, the state Legislature is about to insert itself into the world of defining college curricula.
The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education approved a bill on March 27 that includes new language that says public universities should “not participate in any instructional activity that encourages or discourages union organizing of employees.” Of course there’s a false equivalency here: no self-respecting public university would sponsor classes that encourage union busting, since it’s illegal under federal labor law.
The activity made illegal by the Michigan House bill includes “participating with any business or union, or group of businesses or unions, in hosting, sponsoring, administering, or in any way facilitating an academy, seminar, class, course, conference, or program that provides instruction, in whole or in part, in techniques for encouraging or discouraging employees in regard to union organizing.” The proposed penalty under the bill for each violation: $500,000. (Now where did they get that figure?)
Guy Snyder, editor of Michigan Construction News, called the argument against MSU’s labor education program “deceitful to its very core. For one, it lacks specificity. Define ‘pro-union.’ Define ‘anti-union.’
“You could tie up our court system for decades trying to determine if just one disputed sentence is encouraging, neutral, or discouraging to a labor organization and collective bargaining,” Snyder continued. “In practical terms, to make the penalty work you would have to ban labor studies in their entirety.
“Even worse, as has been pointed out to us, there would be collateral damage. Curriculum for studies in history, business law, and labor relations would have to be ‘sanitized’ of references to unions, including employer rights for encouraging workers to reject them.”
Still, the threat of withholding money got Michigan State’s attention.
“MSU is reviewing the language in the budget approved by the Senate Appropriations Higher Education Subcommittee,” MSU spokesman Kent Casella said to MLive on March 27. “It is important to note that the Building Trades Academy does not advocate unionization of any company or group of companies; instead, it explores the business case of why the management of a company would voluntarily engage with a union.”