EAST LANSING – The Associated Builders and Contractors of Michigan is demanding that Michigan State University cancel its Building Trades Academy program on the grounds that it encourages "organizing in non-union construction companies," while a state legislative committee has struck funds from the university's budget for 2014-2015.

"Such activities lack legitimacy when performed by an academic institution," Chris Fisher, president of Michigan chapter of ABC, said in
a statement. "Would the university support a similar program geared toward union busting?"

But MSU spokesman Kent Cassella said that the program, which began in May 2013, is not paid for by taxpayer money but by the trade unions. 

"Beginning in May 2013, MSU's School of Human Resources and Labor Relations was contracted by North America's Building Trade Union Department to administer and provide academic oversight of the Building Trades Academy," Cassella said in a statement late Wednesday night. 

The Senate appropriations subcommittee on higher education approved a budget Thursday for the state's public universities that docks $500,000 from MSU's funding because of the university's involvement.

The Building Trades Academy, a series of four- and five-day seminars offered through the school of Human Resources and Labor Relations, is described as a program that provides "educational programs that offer useful and practical skill building for Building Trades union staff and leadership and capacity building for their unions." 

Classes are held in East Lansing, Los Angeles, and the Washington D.C. metro area. The D.C. classes are held at union-owned facilities while the classes in Los Angeles and East Lansing will be held at union halls. 

"There may be a place for union organizing but it is through the union halls, not the halls of a public land-grant university," Fisher
said. ABC is a national trade association that represents the merit shop construction industry. It has 74 chapters across the country and represents 22,000 commercial contractors and construction-related firms. 

A frequent contributor to Republican Party candidates – including former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney – the organization has often been at odds with labor unions.

Fisher said in the original statement that he believed Michigan taxpayers were being spent on the class. 

In a letter to MSU President Lou Anna Simon, Fisher says that the academy is "university-sanctioned instruction of union representatives in methods of interfering with existing employee and employer relationships for purposes of organizing non-union businesses."

Cassella said that the program is a non-credit course that is meant to offer "skill-building" for union staff.

"This service is paid for entirely through fees paid by members of the North America's Building Trades Unions, and no state appropriations or undergraduate tuition goes to support it," he said. "The academy does not advocate unionization of any company or group of companies; instead, it explores the business case of why the management of a company would voluntarily engage with a union."

The Michigan chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, a national advocacy group for small businesses, challenged Cassella's assertion in a release celebrating the appropriations decision.

"MSU or any public, taxpayer-supported educational institution as a front and proxy to teach union staff how to organize private employers is a conflict of interest and an inappropriate use of a university’s reputation and taxpayer dollars," NFIB state director Charlie Owens said in a statement. "Just because they reimburse at the back end after using university resources at the front end doesn't change the fact that this is advocacy by a public university for labor union activities that foster labor unrest in private taxpaying businesses."

By Jay Scott Smith | JSmith44@mlive.com 
on March 27, 2014 at 1:37 PM, updated March 27, 2014 at 7:16 PM