Michigan agency under fire for 'How to Organize a Union' event

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Republican-led Senate panel will reconsider a Michigan department's budget recommendation after the department revealed it would hold training to instruct private and public sector employees on "how to organize a union."

Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, said the unionization training is "beyond the scope and mission" of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, accused the state of putting a "thumb on the scale" for unions.

The union organizing training and the department's development of permanent COVID-19 workplace rules have pushed the Senate to schedule a subcommittee meeting next week to reconsider the Senate's budget plan for the department, Horn said. 

The Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity is being criticized by GOP legislative leaders for scheduling an event instructing public and private sector employees on how to organize a union.

"We’re going to ask the acting director to lay out the holistic view of what LEO is doing in promoting both employers and employees," Horn said. 

The agency on Friday said it looked forward to discussing with the subcommittee "the many educational resources and services the department provides both employers and employees, and giving an update on the work MIOSHA is doing to keep workers safe from COVID-19."

The department's deputy director of labor, Sean Egan, defended the unionization webinar, scheduled for Monday, as part of the state's inaugural Workplace Rights Week and noted it is for "educational purposes only."

The event "is aimed at not only answering questions we receive from constituents on a regular basis, but to also educate Michiganders of their protected rights under the law," Egan said in a Thursday statement.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ran for office in 2018 with overwhelming support from private-sector and public-sector unions. A June 2020 press release from Whitmer's office noted that Egan is a journeyman electrician who has maintained his membership in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Shirkey criticized the training on the radio and in a statement this week, accusing the state of putting a "thumb on the scale" of what should be a discussion exclusive to union organizers and workers.  

"I celebrate their right to be able do so," Shirkey told radio host Guy Gordon Thursday. "I encourage them to do so. But it’s not a government or taxpayer function and this is an assault on the citizens of Michigan in my opinion.”

Shirkey is the founder and owner of Orbitform, a Jackson-based engineering company. 

In a Thursday morning press release, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity said Egan would hold a training event on "How to Organize a Union" with National Labor Relations Board field examiner Dan Molenda for "private sector employees."

"Join the event to learn more about (an) employee's right to organize, bargain collectively and advocate for better protections," the notice said. 

Later in the day, the department sent out a second alert notifying people that Molenda would have to reschedule but would be featured at a later webinar on "workplace rights for private sector workers" in the coming weeks. 

The new alert kept the training with Egan, but tailored it to "the election process overview to form a union for public sector employees."

Horn said he was encouraged that Molenda was "pulled" from the lineup for the Monday training and hoped Egan "would do the same thing."

Shirkey argued the state's passage of the a right-to-work law that took effect in March 2013 gave unions the freedom to "make their case" and workers the freedom to "make their choice." Taxpayer dollars shouldn't be used to make the case, he said. 

"Businesses and capital have freedom to move anywhere in the world right now. And they are very careful about where they place their capital and whether it’s a business-friendly environment or not," Shirkey told WJR-AM's Guy Gordon Thursday.

"These businesses that are deploying their capital and have those choices from states and even countries, they’re looking for signals like this that would cause them to question whether or not it’s a friendly environment.” 

The training comes a couple weeks after workers at an Alabama Amazon warehouse rejected efforts to form a union amid criticisms of Amazon's treatment of workers during the pandemic. 

The vote against unionization cut off a possible path labor activists envisioned for other private-sector Amazon locations to unionize.

The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced last week that in addition to extending emergency workplace COVID-19 restrictions, it also had begun the development of permanent workplace rules in case Michigan's run with COVID-19 wasn't finished by the time the temporary restrictions run out in October. 

Horn said there's no need for permanent COVID rules for workplaces.

"When every employee who wishes to be vaccinated is and every employee who wishes not to be is comfortable with that, who may I ask is MIOSHA protecting with extended COVID rules?” Horn said.