A free enterprise think tank in Michigan — backed by some of the biggest names in national conservative donor circles — has made a broad public records request to at least three in-state universities with departments that specialize in the study of labor relations, seeking all their emails regarding the union battle in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI) and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, TPM has learned.
According to professors subject to the request, filed under Michigan’s version of the Freedom Of Information Act, the request is extremely rare in academic circles. An employee at the think tank requesting the emails tells TPM they’re part of an investigation into what labor studies professors at state schools in Michigan are saying about the situation in Madison, Wisc., the epicenter of the clashes between unions and Republican-run state governments across the Midwest.
One professor subject to the FOIA described it as anti-union advocates “going after folks they don’t agree with.”
The Mackinac Center For Public Policy, based in Midland, Mich., submitted the FOIA requests last Friday and Monday to the Labor Studies Center at the University of Michigan and the Douglas A. Fraser Center for Workplace Issues at Wayne State University. A third FOIA was directed to Michigan State University, which has a School of Human Resources & Labor Relations.
The requests specifically seek emails from all labor studies faculty at each school.
The Mackinac Center For Public Policy describes itself as a “nonpartisan research and educational institute” focused on providing free market “solutions to state and local policy questions” in Michigan. The center does not disclose its donors but
according to recent reporting by Mother Jones, Mackinac “is part of a network of state-based groups associated with the Heritage Foundation.”
Past major donors to Mackinac Center, according to Mother Jones, have included the Charles G. Koch Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation (the Wal-Mart Waltons), and foundations tied to two of Michigan’s best-known and wealthiest conservative political families: the DeVos family of Amway fame and the Prince family of Blackwater fame.
The Mackinac Center has long pushed for several of the controversial proposals put forward by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), including one which would allow state government to step in when local municipalities face financial crises and declare, as one supportive legislator put it, “financial martial law,” including abrogating union contracts.
The think tank is also known for FOIAing state workers, including teachers and professors. In February, it criticized Michigan State for not fully complying with a FOIA request for emails surrounding a plagiarism scandal involving MSU faculty. A recent request was for public school teacher emails that may or may not have mentioned the possibility of a strike. Teacher strikes are illegal in Michigan. That FOIA request was denied, leading to outcry from the Mackinac Center and the Michigan Press Association.
But where those requests were relatively narrow — looking for emails surrounding a specific incident or specific plans for a strike — the FOIAs sent to state university labor studies faculty are quite broad. The parameters for the request, from a version of the FOIA obtained by TPM and confirmed by Mackinac, cover emails that mention:
“Scott Walker”; “Wisconsin”; “Madison”; “Maddow”; Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin.
The request covers all faculty emails from “January 1, 2011 to March 25, 2011.”
Read the entire FOIA sent to UM here.
Jarrett Skorup, the Mackinac Center research associate whose name is on the FOIA, told TPM he helped write and then filed the FOIAs at the request of his bosses, but he wasn’t sure what they’d be used for in the end. He suggested the Mackinac Center was looking for chatter about the Wisconsin labor situation from state professors paid to study labor relations.
“I would imagine just to see what the people in the labor studies dept are thinking about stuff in Wisconsin,” Skorup said when asked the purpose of the FOIAs.
His boss, Mackinac Center newsletter managing editor Ken Braun, refused to comment on the FOIAs.
“I’m not going to release what we’re writing about,” he said.
Roland Zullo, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy and subject to the request, suggested the Mackinac Center is trying to catch labor studies professors in illegal political advocacy on state time.
“It sounds like they’re trying to catch us advocating for the recall or the election of a politician,” Zullo said. “Because we’re not supposed to do that, we’re not supposed to use our University of Michigan resources for something like that.”
Zullo said his faculty has been FOIAed by a conservative group before, several years ago, but the request went nowhere after the broad (and expensive) request for documents from his colleagues led the group to drop the FOIA.
Marick Masters, director of the labor studies program at Wayne State and also subject to a Mackinac Center FOIA, says he’s never seen anything like it.
“I’ve been an educator since early 1980s and I’ve never had a FOIA request,” he said. Masters declined to speculate on the nature of the request, saying only that “everyone is entitled to file a FOIA request” and that he’s forwarded the request to the university’s general counsel, who’ll decide if and how to comply with it.
Maddow’s name in the list of requested emails came as a surprise.
“Some days my job is weirder than others,” she told TPM.
Zullo said it sounds to him like labor studies professors are becoming the latest pawns in the fight between conservatives and labor that has heated up since January, when a slew of tea party-backed Republican governors were sworn in around the country.
“This is a way that they’re going after folks they don’t agree with, I suppose,” Zullo said. “I see it just simply as part of the political environment we exist in right now.”
This post has been updated with Maddow’s response to TPM.