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Unions have one of our own at state labor agency

Date Posted: March 20 2020

LANSING - Like the country song goes, it's good to have friends in low places. But it's good to have them in higher places, too.

For organized labor in Michigan, one of those friends who has reached a high place in state government is Sean Egan, former business manager of West Michigan IBEW Local 275 in Coopersville. In January, Sean was tapped by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to become deputy director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO).

Rarely do union members make it that far up the rungs of state government. And rarely these days do you hear such leaders of public agencies say what Egan said on March 3 to delegates of the 61st Michigan Building and Construction Trades Council's Legislative Conference. He was hardly reticent in proclaiming that the state's focus would return to the working class, and unions would have a prominent role.

Egan said the agency would be "realigning focus" and Michigan's workers will be treated as "customers" once again under the Whitmer Administration.

"Who are the 'customers?'" Egan said. "I’ll tell you who, the working men and women in Michigan.  Certainly, our agencies work with the business community, and should continue to do so, the lawyer community, the insurance community, the safety community, and others. But every day when we think about who we are serving and why, it is about working people.  Our stakeholders, training programs, grant programs, partnerships, and all the other great connections we make serve one purpose, to ensure that working men and women are safe, paid, can organize, receive disability benefits when eligible, and whatever other rights these laws allow.

"So, those connections are not what we do, they are tools to help us accomplish our mission of serving the working people of Michigan.  I would not suggest that any of these agencies have strayed from this, but I will say that we are re-establishing this framework and thinking to ensure that everything we do aligns with our primary purpose and the people of Michigan better understand their rights."

Workers are affected in a number of different ways by the important state agencies Egan helps oversee, including MIOSHA, the Workers Disability Compensation Agency, the Bureau of Employment Relations, and the Wage & Hour Division.

Egan pointed out some of the more worker-friendly ways LEO intends to operate. Among them is increased information-sharing across agencies. For example, MIOSHA might find during an investigation that underage workers are on a job - that should not only be a MIOSHA violation, but should be reported to the Wage and Hour Division.

The department will be seeking labor's help to better identify and pursue wage theft and payroll fraud, especially in the area of 1099 cases (where employers cheat by misclassifying workers as independent contractors).

Egan said while the state Legislature's cut of Workers Compensation benefit weeks (from 26 to 20) in 2011 "devastated the ability of injured workers to collect benefits,"  the agency intends to actively identify "ways to ensure working people do the right things to collect benefits."

And acknowledging union apprenticeships as "the only successful model in the industry that ensures strong training, completion, and a career in this challenging industry," Egan urged the union programs to expand efforts to diversify their expanding the awareness and availability of these opportunities to everyone

A journeyman wireman, Sean served as business manager of Local 275 from 2007 to 2017, a period in which he entered law school, graduating from Western Michigan University's Cooley Law School in 2013 with honors. Prior to his state appointment Sean worked as a general counsel for IBEW Local 876.

Egan said working people and unions in Michigan suffered all manner of degradations during the past two terms of total Republican control in Michigan.

"Over the past eight years working people have endured attacks on all fronts," Egan said. "This includes freedom to freeload, (with the imposition of right-to-work), cuts to unemployment benefits, cuts to workers comp, cuts to public sector bargaining rights, weakening labor protections, gutting voter driven initiatives like the Paid Medical Leave Act and minimum wage, and while many that voted in favor claim to love apprenticeship programs, repealing prevailing wage in Michigan.

"Add to that rule changes, shrinking budgets, tax cuts, and the other myriad of anti-worker initiatives, and you can see the hole working people are in is deep."

Egan said that Whitmer is on board with the worker-friendly realignment of LEO, pointing out that she has said "that unionization rates are an indicator of the success of Michigan.  If they are going up, we are doing good, if they are going down, it is a negative indicator."

On the federal level, the three-member Republican majority on the National Labor Relations Board under the Trump Administration is actively searching to upend the status quo implement all manner of business-friendly, anti-worker decisions.

"We can’t change the current NLRB, but at the (state) Bureau of Employment Relations we can certainly engage and educate working people about their right to organize," Egan said, which he called the most powerful right you have at work to negotiate over your wages, hours, benefits, and conditions of employment.”

Egan told delegates to the conference that "most of you know, I am a card-carrying, apprenticeship-completing, dues-paying, loud and proud member of the IBEW for the past 23 years, and our labor movement.  And, (holding up his dues receipt) I am proud as hell to carry one of these."