Posted on April 18, 2008
Members of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations called the University’s loyalty to community outreach into question at the monthly meeting of the University Board of Regents yesterday.
About 100 protesters rallied outside the Fleming Building during the meeting, in which Stephen Forrest, the University’s Vice President for Research, announced plans to merge ILIR’s Labor Studies Center with a Ross School of Business program. Protesters said a merger between a labor institute and a business division would present a conflict of interests.
The Labor Studies Center provides leadership conferences for workers in the Washtenaw County area. The workshops educate laborers, particularly women and minorities, on subjects like unionizing, collective bargaining and contract negotiation.
Forrest said the new center, which will be called the Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy, will help ILIR develop a more comprehensive approach to research.
“ILIR’s Labor Studies Center is being reconfigured to broaden its agenda to encompass employment as well as working labor,” he said.
However, ILIR instructor Charles Boulton, a former vice president of the United Auto Workers, told the board that the change would compromise the institute’s mission.
“The regents want to move it to a business-economic incubator – or basically eliminate it,” he said. “That’s not labor, it’s business. Labor offers the humanitarian side of it – fair working, living wages, healthcare, things like that. It teaches the laborers’ perspective. Their perspective is about business and how that strives and survives.”
Forrest said an institutional overhaul would allow other schools to provide a broader distribution of ILIR’s services.
Forrest also said Wayne State and Michigan State University – the two schools that partner with the University to make up Michigan’s University Research Corridor – already have strong labor studies programs and are ideal candidates for collaboration.
University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said collaboration would pool valuable resources from the three universities.
“The University believes that the interests of the state and labor will best be served if UM collaborates with another university that has a critical mass of faculty expertise on labor issues so we can co-sponsor conferences and schools for workers and unions,” Cunningham said.
Protesters outside the meeting included members of the United Auto Workers, the Graduate Employees’ Organization and the Greater Detroit Building and Construction Traces Council.
During an address to the regents in the public comments portion of the meeting, Elise Bryant, a senior staff associate at the National Labor College, said that while Michigan State and Wayne State provide similar programs, neither of them has been as successful as the University of Michigan in targeting women and people of color.
Bryant said she wanted the University to make good on its commitment to diversity through community outreach.
“If the University of Michigan is sincere about its commitment to serve traditionally underrepresented communities, then it needs to seriously examine the programs housed at the Labor Studies center,” she said.
Bryant said the program also benefits University employees.
“The people who built this building – the people who cleaned these rooms for the first time sat in the classrooms not as a person who worked there, but as a student to learn,” Bryant said. “Some of them for the first time came hungry for knowledge and skills.”
Addressing the regents, Shannon Kirkland, a representative from the Communication Workers of America union, said that he had been a non-unionized Comcast employee in Detroit prior to his experience at the institute.
“As a result of the Labor Studies Center here at the University of Michigan, they taught me the skills, they gave me the drive, they gave me the determination to first and foremost to combat an employer that was dead set against us unionizing,” Kirkland said.
All three speakers urged the board not to combine its resources with another organization but to instead increase funding for the Labor Studies Center.
At their request, President Mary Sue Coleman told the board that Forrest would provide a more detailed presentation on the proposed merger.
After the meeting, Regent Katherine White said she would carefully consider the speakers’ comments.
“I would really like to make sure that we are being accessible,” White said. “I’d hate to shut off one of the ways we’re doing that without thinking that through. I think one of the things that we’re going to do is go back to the drawing board, make sure that the administration is looking at issues that are brought before us.”
– Daily Staff Reporters Sara Lynne Thelen and Elaine LaFay contributed to this report.