So Close

University of Michigan graduate research assistants thought they were on the verge of being able to form a union, but a surprise move from lawmakers shut them down.

March 21, 2012

When some University of Michigan graduate student research assistants started a drive to unionize about two years ago, they never imagined that their campaign would result in the governor signing a bill to prevent them and other graduate research assistants from organizing at public universities in the state.

But that is what happened earlier this month, when Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill, which says that graduate research assistants at public universities in the state are students and not employees -- and thus ineligible for collective bargaining. (While the National Labor Relations Board governs collective bargaining rights at private institutions, states do so for public colleges and universities.)

Tensions are growing, as campus battles get intertwined with larger political battles in the state. And just like in Wisconsin and Ohio, the issue has grown into a bigger debate about collective bargaining and who should or should not be entitled to it. Michigan arguably has the strongest history of collective bargaining in the country, and when graduate students working as teaching assistants at the University of Michigan won its first contract in 1975, their union was one of the first in the country to do so. Now, the university's Graduate Employees Organization, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, has joined a campaign called Protect Our Jobs, which is seeking a measure on the November ballot that will guarantee collective bargaining rights in the state’s constitution to all workers.

Liz Rodrigues, a graduate student instructor in English language and literature and spokeswoman for the Graduate Employees Organization, said the efforts to unionize were uncontroversial at first. “But it looks like the reason we were attacked was because this is a larger campaign to end collective bargaining,” she said.

The organization, which represents about 1,800 graduate teaching and staff assistants, said a majority of the university's 2,200 graduate research assistants signed cards to support unionizing but the organization ran up against a formidable set of opponents: university administrators, Republican lawmakers and the governor, the state’s attorney general and a think-tank called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Graduate student research assistants at the university haven’t had collective bargaining rights since 1981, when they lost their rights to organize after the Michigan Employment Relations Commission ruled they were students and not employees. However, graduate student instructors at the university could unionize and are part of the Graduate Employees Organization.

About two years ago, some graduate research assistants floated the idea of collective bargaining for themselves, because they felt they were treated differently than graduate students instructors when they tried to complain or raise issues with administrators, some research assistants said. Another catalyst for the movement were incidents involving Jennifer Dibbern, a research assistant and graduate student in the engineering department, who was allegedly fired as a graduate research assistant because of her involvement with the student union, though some of her claims have been contested by a colleague.

Last year, the Graduate Employees Organization filed cards with the state’s employment commission hoping to hold an election, while the university’s Board of Regents voted 6-2 to declare that graduate research assistants were employees. Mary Sue Coleman, the university’s president, and other administrators have an opposing view and have stated that research assistants are not employees.

In November, the state’s employment commission decided to revisit the issue and said an administrative law judge would look into whether the working conditions of graduate student research assistants had changed over the years. Though that process is still to be completed,  the judge’s decision likely will have no effect because of the new law.

The employment commission also scheduled an administrative hearing on the issue but its decision might not have any effect because of the new bill banning unionization efforts.

David Hecker, President of AFT Michigan, said the 1981 ruling by the employment commission needs to be revisited because the nature of the university has changed. “Its major function is research,” he said. Hecker criticized the university administration, said the university’s president and other administrators have let a climate grow on campus where research assistants have felt intimidated by their instructors. “They have done nothing to properly administer and tell faculty how they should be acting,’ he alleged.

A university spokesman said the union had been advised to forward instances of inappropriate behavior or intimidation by instructors to the administration. “There are different points of view about this on campus. People have strong feelings,” said Richard Fitzgerald, a university spokesman. Coleman has stated publicly that graduate research assistants are students and not employees, according to reports.

Christie Toth, a graduate student research assistant at the university’s Sweetland Center for Writing, who has been involved with the unionization effort since fall, said she felt her rights had been circumvented with the new bill. “It is an unfair move. We were seeking to have a debate through an election,” she said.

Graduate Research Assistants at the university usually  have the same pay and benefits as graduate student instructors. Toth said most assistants are happy with their jobs “but when it doesn’t work out, there is little protection or recourse.”

Opposition to the move has come from some research assistants, who aligned themselves with the Mackinac Center, a nonprofit conservative think-tank that has opposed the unionization effort.

Michael Jahr, a Mackinac spokesman, said the center was concerned that the unionization supporters and the regents were doing an end-run around “what has been settled law” for three decades. “These students who are engaged in world class research would suddenly be thrust into a situation where a third party would be acting on their behalf,” he said. He called the move an effort to expand the public sector.

The center and the state's attorney general filed motions to intervene with the state’s employment relations commission, but those appeals were denied,

After the Michigan governor signed the bill that would block the union, the Mackinac Center website featured a group of graduate research assistants who oppose the move to unionize.

Melinda Day, a graduate student of molecular biology at the university and a research assistant, opposed the unionization move and approached the Mackinac Center for help. About 370 graduate research assistants are against unionization, according to Day.

“We applied as students to earn a graduate degree, not as employees. This is a disservice to students. It changes the educational system,” she said.



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