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Howes: Democratic majority on UM board moving to speed collective bargaining on campus

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

As the University of Michigan navigates one of its toughest financial challenges, a majority of its Democratic-controlled Board of Regents is preparing to change school policy to speed collective bargaining across its three campuses.

The move could come as soon as a board meeting scheduled for Thursday, according to two sources familiar with the situation and internal emails obtained by The Detroit News, and is likely to inflame tensions with a Republican Legislature in Lansing facing multi-billion-dollar budget shortfalls over several years because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

Mark Bernstein

Spearheaded by Regent Mark Bernstein, the push — referred to in the emails as “Codification of Certain Policies Related to Collective Bargaining at UM” — would be a supplemental agenda item and offered for ratification at this week's meeting. Under the policy, the university would remain neutral in union organizing drives, would allow a “card check” to certify bargaining units instead of secret ballots, and would require both sides to jointly communicate agreements to potential members.

Liberalized bargaining guidelines risk increasing the university's costs as it faces pressure to cut budgets in response to the pandemic, the driving force behind the school's decision in recent months to secure a $1 billion credit facility and issue nearly $1 billion in bond debt. Additionally, critics say, card check can be used to sidestep secret ballots and can subject would-be members to pressure and intimidation to sign.

The move bears all the hallmarks of a political power play designed to benefit organized labor, a core constituency of Democratic Party, as Bernstein eyes re-election in November. It's yet another glaring example of how partisan politics infect the boards of Michigan's Big Three state universities, their members elected on statewide partisan ballots. And it evokes the ol' bromide attributed to Rahm Emmanuel, the former Chicago mayor: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."

What better time to marshal a board majority, to brush aside detailed concerns from university administration and to exploit distraction in the state capital? Yes, amid a global pandemic that is transfixing the public, the politicians and the business leadership of a state working hard to achieve some semblance of normalcy.

The question answers itself. The board's governing majority is rushing to vote on the labor proposal as management finalizes next year's budget and prepares to bring students back to campuses despite uncertainty over COVID-19. The aim is to pre-empt what Bernstein, in a June 22 email, calls "the likelihood of an intervening distraction" he does not identify in multiple emails — which pretty much tells you what's going on here outside public view.

“I’m concerned about inclusion of undemocratic card check instead of a democratic secret ballot supervised” by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, said Chairman Ron Weiser, the sole Republican on the university’s eight-person governing board.

Ron Weiser

In an email to Bernstein, Weiser wrote: "You and I should talk about how to do this in a way that allows you to keep your commitments and p----es off the Legislature the least. Are you willing?"

Practically speaking, neither Weiser nor university President Mark Schlissel can delay the move — though Schlissel tried. In a June 20 email to Bernstein, the university leader asked to hold off consideration of the labor policy proposal "until our July meeting, as previously agreed." Schlissel said the university's legal and human resources staffs needed more time to study the proposal to diminish "unintended adverse consequences."

Schlissel asked for more time to consider his "own position on this." He objected that two regents — Weiser and Katherine White — were "not part of our focused discussion" a few days earlier. And he pointed out that senior administrators would be focused in the run-up to this week's meeting on finalizing budgets, optimizing investment plans for all three campuses and "rolling out our plans for a completely novel public-health informed hybrid Fall semester."

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel

Two days later, Bernstein replied: "This is the first time I've been at odds with you on a matter of consequence during my tenure on the board (your entire presidency). And while I disagree with you, I highly respect your judgment and thoughtfulness. I've said that your arguments are strong, but I respectfully believe mine are just slightly stronger."

How, exactly, he doesn't say, adding that "we should vote on this matter during our meeting Thursday." In an email to The News, Bernstein declined to discuss his new collective bargaining proposal: "This may be a matter that the board will consider at an upcoming meeting. In this event, I would expect a full discussion to occur at that time.  Therefore, I have nothing further to share at this time."

Buckle up. This will not sit well with Republicans in Lansing or its allies in the right-to-work crowd. And it looks an awful lot like an underhanded gambit by a Michigan regent preparing again to run for something, as he was rumored to be in the run-up to the 2018 election that made Gretchen Whitmer governor. Bernstein's term expires Jan. 1, and is expected to seek re-election to the board of regents.

Labor unions are not new to the University of Michigan, nor are partisan squabbles over whether and how to establish representation on campus. Of the 52,700 employees on campuses in Ann Arbor, Flint and Dearborn, roughly 14,200 are represented by labor unions, according to university numbers reported on its websites. 

Yes, elections have consequences and majorities are meant to be wielded. But pressing advantage amid a once-in-a-century crisis and over the objections of university management isn't good governance. It's political self-interest that does not belong in the boardrooms of Michigan's Big Three universities.

daniel.howes@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes is columnist and associate business editor of The Detroit News. His column runs most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.