Lansing — A labor group's use of college students to stage Friday night protests outside an Italian restaurant in Dearborn could cost the University of Michigan millions in taxpayer funding.
The Detroit-based Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan settled its 15-month labor dispute with upscale restaurant chain Andiamo in March 2011. Now House Republicans are trying to compel U-M to drop its association with the group as part of strings attached to $4.7 million in new state funding.
Tucked in the House education budget at the request of the Michigan Restaurant Association is a provision prohibiting universities from collaborating with "a non-profit worker center whose documented activities include coercion through protest, demonstration or organization against a Michigan business."
University professors nationwide are decrying the provision as an infringement of academic freedom, while Republican legislators say universities shouldn't be promoting free speech protests against businesses that pay taxes that support university operations.
"As we see it, students can receive internship credit for basically shaking down Michigan businesses," said Rep. Bob Genetski, R-Saugatuck, chair of the panel.
State Rep. Joe Haveman added the provision at the behest of a restaurant industry lobbyist, but acknowledged in a recent committee meeting he doesn't know what the rule concerns.
A Detroit News inquiry into the origins of the proposed law found it stems from protests staged in 2009 and 2010 during Friday night dinner hours at Andiamo's Dearborn location on Michigan Avenue.
U-M's connection is its School of Social Work internship in community activism, which lets students receive internship credit for working with the workers' organization, said Justin Winslow, vice president of governmental affairs at the Michigan Restaurant Association.
Winslow said a U-M graduate student interning with the workers' organization got other students to join in the weekly protests, and the restaurant association wants the university to cut all ties with the workers' group.
"I don't see that as a proper role of our institutions to encourage our students to go out and protest against the very businesses that produce the taxes that allow them to go to college," Haveman said April 19 at a House Appropriations Committee meeting.
University professors are demanding that lawmakers remove the provision from performance measures universities have to satisfy to qualify for $36 million in new money next school year.
Gov. Rick Snyder's and the Senate's budget plans don't include the provision, so the two Republican-controlled chambers will have to decide whether to keep it during budget negotiations next month.
"I really don't accept the right of the Legislature to mess around with my syllabus and prevent me from doing what I believe is in the best interest of my students," said Ian Robinson, a sociology lecturer at U-M's Ann Arbor campus.
If the provision becomes law, it will be the latest example of legislators "chipping away at the autonomy of universities," said Michael Bailey, executive director for the Michigan conference of the American Association of University Professors.
"We're just looking at this as the nose in the tent, and they're trying to muscle their way in any way they can," said Bailey.
The university professors' association has sent lawmakers a letter signed by 134 university faculty and administrators from across the country opposed to the funding stipulation.
State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said Republican lawmakers are caving to business interests without considering past allegations of Andiamo violating labor laws.
In July 2010, Andiamo settled allegations with the National Labor Relations Board that it illegally retaliated against two former employees.
The company promised not to "call our employees liars" and "not engage in surveillance" of workers, according to a report from the labor board's Detroit office.
The company also agreed to give one worker $30 in unpaid wages.
Andiamo attorney Marla Linderman and Restaurant Opportunities Center coordinator Minsu Longiaru declined to comment because of legal stipulations in their March 2011 confidential settlement. Longiaru said the group educates restaurant workers about their workplace rights and demands employers follow labor laws. In the past, she has said Andiamo had an "environment of intimidation."
The group is one of several social justice and human services organizations social work students can work for to get university internship credit, U-M spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said.
Winslow, the restaurant association lobbyist, called the group "the ACORN of the restaurant industry."
He was referring to the community organizing group that disbanded in 2009 after various criminal allegations and being defunded by Congress.
"It's frustrating from our perspective how they operate," Winslow said.