At the end of a lively panel discussion last week featuring AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, UAW President Bob King and AFSCME Michigan President Mark Gaffney, among others, Frank Mamat, an adjunct labor law professor at Wayne State University, rose to ask the first question from the audience:

“…I guess the 800-pound elephant in the room that nobody is mentioning in four-and-a-half hours is what happened to EFCA? … You spent $44 million plus to get Obama elected, you had supermajorities in both houses. My studies indicate to me that if it had gotten passed in the first three or four months of the administration you probably would be at 14 percent penetration now instead of 7, and two years from now maybe even 30 percent … How did it happen that your investment was all sort of pushed off into health care as opposed to getting what really would have totally turned around the labor movement?”

The simple fact that the first question posed by a university professor was about partisan politics and lobbying says a great deal about the nature of the union movement and the risks involved in the academic study of an institution that carries a lot of partisan political baggage.

The Employee Free Choice Act was meant to stem the slow but steady erosion of union membership, which has dropped from 14.3 percent of the private-sector workforce in 1985 to 6.9 percent last year. EFCA’s “card-check” process was vulnerable to abuse, but what matters right now is that rather than change their recruitment practices or improve the services they provide to workers, the union establishment counted on Congress to change the law in their favor.

Even before Professor Mamat reminded the audience about the elephant, the discussion had featured a menagerie of political topics. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka pointed to the recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election, in which union-backed challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg led incumbent Richard Prosser at the time, as evidence of a political backlash against Gov. Scott Walker’s labor law reforms. (Note: election results have since been updated with Prosser likely to retain his post.) Trumka also touted recall petitions against Wisconsin legislators: “We’re now going to go into recall petitions. We have filed on two of the state senators. We have enough votes for two more and before it’s over hopefully we’ll have enough to do eight or nine of those senators.”

Communications Workers of America Vice President Seth Rosen highlighted the expansion of protests against similar labor law reforms in Ohio. Metro Detroit AFL-CIO President Saundra Williams predicted that recalls of elected officials will have widespread and long-lasting repercussions. UAW President Bob King criticized Gov. Rick Snyder for his proposed business tax changes: “It’s the biggest welfare giveaway you can ever think of. There’s not any requirement that a single corporation brings a single job into Michigan for that $1.8 or $9 billion that he wants to give them.”

The challenge for academics who want to study labor is that the labor establishment is driven by politics more than economics or conditions in the shops and job sites where their members work. It is nearly impossible to talk about labor unions without being drawn into political commentary. And if a professor happens to sympathize with union objectives, the temptation to engage in political advocacy will be constant.

There is every reason to suspect that Wayne State’s labor studies program fell into the political vortex. Several pages from their website, describing many of their activities, disappeared shortly after the Mackinac Center filed a FOIA request meant to detect political activism among instructors. And it’s worth noting that this labor panel did not include a single spokesman for employers or for independent workers who have chosen not to join a union.

An academic who studies labor will frequently be at risk of being drawn into organized labor’s political battles. When taxpayers foot the bill for a state university, they have every right to expect that the professors they hire will stay out of the political fray. The line between legitimate research and political activism may not always be obvious, but it’s one that professors — especially at state institutions — ought to constantly keep in mind.

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Paul Kersey is director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.