A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

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Editor's note: This article was originally published in February 2010. The links in the article below to the Wayne State Labor Studies Center have subsequently been removed or moved to other places on the Labor Studies Center website.

According to its mission statement, the Labor Studies Center at Wayne State University is a "labor education center committed to strengthening the capacity of organized labor to represent the needs and interests of workers, while at the same time strengthening the University's research and teaching on labor and workplace issues." But a closer examination reveals that this obscure corner of the taxpayer-supported university does a lot that resembles progressive political agitation rather than teaching and research. Critics have accused the LSC of crossing the line between education and politicking on the taxpayer dime.

"Wayne State University's Labor Studies Center has long been viewed as a wholly owned subsidiary of the UAW," noted Bob LaBrant, Michigan Chamber of Commerce vice president and legal counsel, in a December 2005 news release. The Chamber was then launching a legal complaint against the LSC for using taxpayer dollars to maintain a Web page that campaigned in favor of placing a minimum wage hike on the 2006 general election ballot.

"It's disappointing that an academic institution would allow itself to be so politically manipulated," LaBrant said. He also stated that the violation of campaign finance laws by the LSC was due to a "lack of oversight" by the university's administration and Board of Governors.

Today, on its university-hosted main page under "Research," a significant political agenda still appears to be driving two of the three areas listed as legitimate research subjects for the LSC.

"Building Regional Power" is the first. The purpose of this research area is told by way of recasting the 2004 elections as something other than a so-called "conservative triumph." The work of a "grassroots army" advancing a "progressive policy agenda" is credited with — among other things — the successful campaign to hike the minimum wage in Florida and delivering numerous and significant setbacks to Republican politicians in the "conservative heartland" of Colorado.

While outlining these successes for Left-leaning political forces, the Labor Studies Center also explicitly defines the phenomena — "We call it regional power building" — and describes the Center's role in it as bringing together "labor researchers and union staff to document cases of regional power building and to develop publicity and training materials used by activists to promote these new strategies."

The page for the second of the LSC's three research areas, "Living Wage Campaigns," appears to provide overt advice and assistance for the regional power building agitators.

A "living wage" is a government-mandated wage that is significantly higher than the state's minimum wage and is required of government employers and often contractors who do business with government. Creating local living wage ordinances is a major policy goal of large organized labor unions. These ordinances are usually opposed by job providers who belong to business groups such as the Michigan Chamber, because they believe such polices prevent economic growth and job creation.  

In addition to publishing studies extolling the virtues of implementing living wage laws, the LSC Web site also provides a "free" 225-page downloadable "activist's handbook," which is advertised as providing a "nuts and bolts guide" for creating a living wage campaign.

To obtain a print version, readers are encouraged to send $15 to the Washington, D.C., offices of ACORN, the highly controversial community organizing group. The LSC handbook's co-authors are David Reynolds, an instructor at the LSC, and Jen Kern, a longtime ACORN employee.

In addition to these research areas, there is also a page dedicated to passing the Employee Free Choice Act (aka "card check"), an LSC-produced manual for public employee unions trying to defeat privatization, and an offer to help assist local unions in "political education." (Perhaps concerned about appearances on this last item, the LSC advises, "Political action does not have to be a "dirty word" for union members or local officers.")

Noting that a clear majority of union workers surveyed oppose anti-democratic policies like card check, Paul Kersey, director of labor policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, believes that using the resources of a state university to agitate for such measures compounds the injustice.

"The taxpayers pay for Wayne State to be a university and for the Labor Studies Center to be dedicated to legitimate economic and legal research, not political agitation," said Kersey. "Wayne State's administration needs to return the LSC to its proper mission. If they cannot or will not, then Lansing should cut off funding."

For 2009, the LSC had five "full-time equivalent" staff positions and total funding of $333,100. In its FY 2010 Budget Book, Wayne State University recommends an additional FTE employee for the LSC and a 7.3 percent overall funding increase.

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