Inside Higher Ed: Union’s man

NewsJanuary 22, 2010

A University of Maryland professor has pulled his institution into a heated labor debate in California, prompting a rebuke from administrators and inviting questions about his own conflicts of interest.

As a paid consultant for Service Employees International, the nation’s fastest growing labor union, Fred Feinstein recently wrote a legal opinion suggesting that California health care workers could receive “less favorable” benefits if they left SEIU for another union. Feinstein penned his opinion on university letterhead, which was then photocopied and used by SEIU as campaign literature, urging workers to stay on as members.Listing his credentials, Feinstein mentioned his status as a senior fellow and visiting professor in Maryland’s School of Public Policy, along with detailing his prior service as general counsel to the National Labor Relations Board. What Feinstein did not mention, however, was that he’s on the SEIU payroll and received about $240,000 from the union and one of its affiliates, Change to Win, in 2007 and 2008, according to federal filings.

Feinstein’s letter prompted a harsh response from the National Union of Healthcare Workers, an independent union that has framed itself as the alternative to SEIU for workers in California. NUHW suggests that Feinstein exploited his position as a faculty member, portraying himself as a disinterested academician while taking a position favorable to an organization that compensates him.

“The University of Maryland is being thrust into the middle of this dispute in a way that not only compromises the University of Maryland, but calls into question the independence of academia in general,” said John Borsos, vice president of NUHW. “Fred Feinstein, writing a letter on the University of Maryland’s letterhead, certainly gave the impression of speaking with the authority of a university on the dispute.”

William Powers, executive dean of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, said Wednesday that Feinstein “violated university policy” with his actions.

“In writing and submitting the letter, Mr. Feinstein was not acting within his role as a university faculty member but in his personal capacity as an adviser to the union,” Powers wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. “It was thus a mistake for him to use university letterhead or in any other way to imply that the university was engaged in this matter or stood behind his opinions.”

Powers went on to say that the university would be “firmly informing” Feinstein that he’d violated university policy, adding that Feinstein will need to tell recipients of the letter that he wasn’t acting as a faculty member when he rendered the opinion.

While Powers affirms that university policy was violated by use of the letterhead, he would not say whether Feinstein violated conflict of interest policies that govern consulting or other outside work. Concerns about the strength of such policies have been raised in recent years across academe, mostly in connection with biomedical researchers with ties to pharmaceutical companies. Issues of conflict of interest, however, have most typically been raised about researchers writing in academic journals — not something like Feinstein wrote, which was essentially a one-page legal opinion, rendered in plain speak and distributed as campaign literature.

Prof’s Ties in Public Record

Reached by phone Wednesday, Feinstein said he was perplexed that his memo had caused such a stir. What’s wrong with a lawyer taking money for giving his advice, he asked?

“I was asked by SEIU, who I am a consultant to, for my legal opinion, on this question,” he said. “The fact that I am a consultant to SEIU and paid as such is a matter of public record.”

That’s true. Unions file annual reports with the U.S. Department of Labor that require disclosure of compensation, and Feinstein’s payments are listed in 2007 and 2008 reports. There has been much discussion of late, however, about whether disclosures of potential conflicts in public documents are sufficient, or if instead professors have an obligation to take additional steps — say an overt mention of conflicts in their writings and publications — to ensure transparency.

“This isn’t an instance of a researcher saying this is a good drug or this is a good company,” Feinstein said. “It’s more of a technical thing that’s going on here, saying what is the law.”

As for the matter of using university letterhead, Feinstein didn’t make much of that either.

“Obviously I’m not speaking on behalf of the University of Maryland,” he said. “Anyone who suggests that’s implied [by the letterhead] of course is incorrect. That’s a stretch.”

But just who Feinstein was representing when he wrote the letter is also left vague. Feinstein wrote that “SEIU-[United Health Workers] members” asked him to provide an opinion. That description could apply to any of the 150,000 members who work in California’s health care industry, but it’s clear that Feinstein wasn’t just doing a favor for some lab technician in Oakland. Feinstein said he couldn’t recall exactly who asked him to write the opinion, but thinks it was someone from SEIU’s legal office.

There is no love lost between SEIU and NUHW, and the Feinstein affair proved yet another occasion for the two organizations to take shots at one another. SEIU officials have accused NUHW leaders of engaging in a series of misdeeds when they worked with SEIU, and the union reiterated those charges when asked about its use of Feinstein’s letter in campaign literature.

“NUHW seems bothered most that Fred Feinstein was simply honest with workers about what the law provides,” Michelle Ringuette, an SEIU spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

— Jack Stripling

Source: Inside Higher Ed