News Story

State Agency’s ‘How To Form A Union’ Adventure Wilted Under Sunshine

Business leader: ‘Can be a labor organizer or .... impartial state regulator’ — but not both

Officials in the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity spent more than a year assembling an April 26 event called “How to Form a Union.” Their work involved collaborating with local representatives of the National Labor Relations Board and the AFL-CIO. The result was a set of videos and a how-to guide for unionizing workers, according to documents produced in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

The department released a total of 146 pages, including dozens of emails, that show Deputy Director Sean Egan organizing an effort to produce “some sort of joint educational webinar ... on how workers engage in organizing.”

Egan is a former union officer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. In February, he told an NLRB official that his vision for the project was “essentially premised on 2 workers talking about their desire to form a union and the [sic] ‘OK then, here are the steps.’”

But just days before its official launch as part of the department’s Workplace Rights Week, the project floundered, as business groups and Republican lawmakers denounced it as advocacy disguised as education.

Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley issued a statement calling the use of state employees and resources to promote labor organizing a “serious misuse of tax dollars.”

“You can either be a labor organizer or an objective, impartial state regulator, but you can’t be both,” Studley said.

The NLRB, which had been communicating with Egan about the project since December 2019, cancelled its participation in the webinar on April 22. That’s when an unnamed official emailed Egan, telling him that the federal agency’s regional director had decided the “appearance of non-neutrality has already tainted our appearance.”

The state labor department defended the project as an educational undertaking. It subsequently amended its original announcement to say that NLRB officials would participate “at a later date,” and it changed the name of the webinar to “Election Process Overview to Form a Union.”

But according to the emails, the NLRB had earlier said it would not participate in the event unless it was live only, with no permanent record created.

Egan had said he planned to post the video on the department’s website as well as social media sites.

Egan also told lawmakers at the height of the controversy that the project was “put together within a few hours over the course of a couple of weeks,” according to MIRS News.

The emails provided to the Mackinac Center show that Egan first sought the NLRB’s participation Dec. 5, 2019. The idea was apparently shelved during the COVID pandemic but renewed in February 2021.

Subsequent emails in March and April indicate significant involvement by departmental employees, including conference calls and video editing. The emails also indicated that Egan was having biweekly consultations with the Michigan AFL-CIO. Egan asked a colleague to take on the April 26 briefing to update the union on Workplace Rights Week and the union organizing presentation.

The name of the AFL-CIO official was redacted in the material released to the Mackinac Center. The identities of the NLRB officials with whom Egan communicated were also redacted. In its response to the FOIA request, the labor department’s FOIA coordinator said some information had been withheld under an exemption for things that would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”

When the department was asked how the identities of public officials who discussed public business could be shielded under a privacy exemption, its communication director said the FOIA coordinator was not available.

It is not clear what happened to the materials and video produced for the project. In an April email, Egan said he planned to record and edit the webinar “and post on our workplace rights landing page.” Neither the video or related materials instructing workers on how to organize appears to be present on the department’s website or its presence on social media sites.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.