Back to School: Challenging the Freedom to Teach and Learn about Labor

What if the collection in your library was circumscribed by your state legislature? This spring, the Michigan state legislature introduced a bill specifically designed to penalize instruction surrounding an important but politically disfavored topic, that of labor organization.

The legislation reads:

Prohibited Instruction Activity. The Senate added new language stating that it is the intent of the Legislature that a public university that receives funds under section 236 shall not participate in any instructional activity that encourages or discourages union organizing of employees including, but not limited to participating with any business or union, or group of businesses or unions, in hosting, sponsoring, administering, or in any way facilitating an academy, seminar, class, course, conference, or program that provides instruction, in whole or in part, in techniques for encouraging or discouraging employees in regard to union organizing. The appropriation in section 236 for any university that participates in an activity described in this section shall be reduced by $500,000 for each occurrence. (Sec. 271A)

Specifically, the bill challenges Michigan State University’s incorporation of a Building Trade Academy as part of their existing School of Human Resources and Labor Relations. The issue seems to have come to a head surrounding coursework that has been described as promoting labor organization.

Promoting labor relations – that seems like a broad umbrella. There is real potential for this movement to stifle any academic debate related to labor history and workers’ rights.

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8b04027/

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8b04027/

If you’re not working in higher education, or not in Michigan, or not at Michigan State University, the reduction in funding of one academic program might not seem like a serious issue. But the “chilling” effect of prohibitions linked to funding have real consequences.

If Holocaust studies could be considered taboo under Tuscon’s ethnic studies prohibition, it is not difficult to imagine a campus climate where faculty avoid introducing the Triangle Shirtwaist Disaster, John L. Lewis, or the groundbreaking photography of Lewis Hine.

The challenge to labor in the curriculum should be taken as seriously as when another state legislature withheld state funding from the two colleges for choosing books that address LGBT topics for school-wide reads.

As of March, MSU’s 2014-15 funding appropriation had been decreased by $500,000 because of this “Prohibited Instructional Activity.” And the fact that this limitation comes from Michigan, home to Henry Ford’s particular brand of “welfare capitalism,” offers a teachable moment for classrooms concerned with academic freedom.

What can you do to raise awareness about this threat? I am working on pulling together some titles on labor history for an epic Labor Day display for my library…sometimes it feels like raising awareness is all you can do in solidarity.

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