4/19/08

Publicly-funded labor activism a hot potato

Union members and supporters rallied Thursday to demand that the University of Michigan continue its Labor Studies Center, which offers labor conferences and adult education geared to union workers.

The fate of the center, established in 1957, is in doubt because U-M is reorganizing the center's parent institute on campus. University officials have spoken with schools that include Wayne State University and Michigan State University about taking over the role of providing the labor conferences.

Reporter Dave Gershman can be reached at 734-994-6818 or dgershman@annarbornews.com.
About 40 union members and supporters rallied outside the Fleming Administration Building before the monthly meeting of the U-M Board of Regents, and four supporters of the center later addressed the regents during the public comments period.

U-M's Vice President for Research Stephen Forrest said after the regents meeting that no decisions have been made and that no conferences have been canceled.

"We're working quite energetically to figure out where the best opportunities exist for strengthening the programs," Forrest said.

The center employs four full-time-equivalent people, including a research scientist, though others on campus have a connection to the center, supporters said.

Several of the speakers said the conferences give important leadership training to people in the labor movement, and allowed them personally to advance in their unions and improve their lives. They also said the conferences open the university's doors to working people in diverse cities like Flint and Detroit.

"The people who built this building, the people who cleaned these rooms for the first time, sat in the classroom not as a person who worked there, but as a student to learn," Elise Bryant, a U-M alumna who is now a faculty member at the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Md., said in addressing the regents.

The focus of U-M's Labor Studies Center on working class women and minorities sets it apart from other universities, she said.

After the comments period, S. Martin Taylor, D-Grosse Pointe Farms, asked university officials to provide a report on the center and its future. "The speakers were extremely compelling," added Regent Larry Deitch, D-Bingham Falls.

Regent Kathy White, D-Ann Arbor, cited the center's work with diverse communities and said U-M faces increased challenges to maintain diversity on campus after the passage of Proposal 2, the constitutional amendment banning some types of affirmative action in public education.

In December, Forrest informed the regents that the parent unit of the Labor Studies Center, the Institute for Labor and Industrial Relations, was being given a new name and mission. The Institute for Research on Labor, Employment and the Economy will focus on promoting the understanding of the major forces restructuring the economy and the impacts on families and communities; evaluate the effects of economic interventions geared toward increasing innovation and improving the economy; and provide economic development intervention services to communities undergoing economic transition.

(blog.mlive.com)

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