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Motion filed to prevent GSRA unionization

By Brienne Prusak, Daily Staff Reporter
Published July 28, 2011

Correction appended: The previous headline for this article incorrectly implied the Mackinac Center prevented GSRAs from unionizing.

After more than five months of discussion, The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation filed a motion Thursday to prevent the unionization of University Graduate Student Research Assistants.

The motion, which was announced at a press conference on Thursday at the Michigan Union, was filed with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission on behalf of Melinda Day, University research assistant in the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, according to Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation.

Wright said the motion is necessary because the University’s Board of Regents hasn't enforced the 1981 law, which resulted from a petition filed by the Graduate Employees Organization's and the subsequent ruling by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission's that determined the unionization of GSRAs to be illegal.

In the 1981 ruling, MERC denied GEO’s petition because students were not public employees and because this still holds true, students are still unable to unionize, Wright said.

He added the Mackinac Center took the case after the issue was discussed at a May 19 regents meeting in which the regents voted against University President Mary Sue Coleman to allow research assistants to have a say if they wanted to join a union that recognized their right to work under Michigan law.

At the May meeting, Coleman said her experiences as a research assistant when she was in college made her feel that allowing GSRAs to unionize would be harmful to the relationship between faculty members and graduate students.

“When I was a graduate student, I did not see myself as working for the university and I did not see my faculty mentor as my employer,” she said. “Far from it. He was my mentor, my tutor and my colleague as I progressed in my course of study.”

Because the University already compensates GSRAs in ways similar to how they pay Graduate Student Instructors, Coleman said unionizing is unnecessary.

“The University’s standard and long-standing policy has ensured that research assistants receive earnings and benefits increases comparable to those provided to GSIs so they are not at a disadvantage when compared to teaching assistants,” she explained.

Day echoed Coleman’s sentiments, adding if GSRAs join unions they will create a divide between themselves and their mentors, according to a July 28 Mackinac Center press release.

“The regents are intruding on the crucial relationship between me and my mentor,” she said. “Unionization could interfere with students’ ability to complete their dissertations and obtain their degrees, because it places a union between students and their faculty mentors. Our liberty is being lost, and I won’t stand by and let it happen.”

However, despite the regents’ desire to see the law change, they don't have the authority to decide whether or not GSRAs can join unions, Wright said in the Mackinac Center press release. He also noted in the release that an almost identical situation occurred in the past in which MERC denied unionization of groups of graduate students, with the only variation between the two instances being the sentiments of the regents.

“The only difference now is that a politically divided Board of Regents of the University of Michigan, over the university administration’s objections, has voted to support this illegal unionization,” Wright said. “The regents cannot unilaterally rewrite the laws of this state, however.”

While the press release said GEO has not yet tried to prove MERC’s ruling as unjust, University spokesperson Kelly Cunningham wrote in a July 28 statement to The Michigan Daily that the University is currently in negotiations with MERC and GEO to decide who will represent the GSRAs.

“The University was just notified of the motion and is reviewing the pleadings now,” Cunningham wrote. “We continue to negotiate with GEO-AFT/MI and MERC on the definition of the bargaining unit as well as terms of the election process to determine whether the GEO will represent the graduate student research assistants.

Additionally, GEO released a statement on July 28 supporting the regents’ decision to allow GSRAs to unionize.

“The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) stands with Graduate Student Research Assistants in support of the University of Michigan Regents’ decision to recognize the right of 2,100 employees to choose whether or not they wish to be represented by the existing graduate union,” the statement said.

The statement also said that GEO, however, does not fully support the Mackinac Center because it hasn’t proven to have the GSRAs best interest in mind.

“The Mackinac Center is an outside party to the process of GSRAs determining their union representation status,” the statement said. “Given the Center’s history of attacking the right of public employees to bargain collectively and the freedom of academic inquiry, it is questionable that the Center’s actions are in the best interest of any student, faculty member or employee of the University of Michigan.”