- Todd Needle/Daily
By Adam Rubenfire, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 10, 2011
Correction Appended: An earlier version of this story inaccurately quoted University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.
With a three-by-four foot letter and box of cupcakes in tow, members of the Graduate Employees Organization gathered in the Fleming Administration Building yesterday to lobby for collective bargaining rights for graduate student research assistants at the University.
GSRAs currently aren’t a part of GEO — the labor union for graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants — though their wages are determined by the organization. Because of this, GSRAs are asking the University to restore bargaining rights to them if a majority vote to designate GEO as their bargaining agent.
Members of GEO drafted a letter to University President Mary Sue Coleman outlining their request for collective bargaining. Six GEO members presented Coleman’s receptionist with the enlarged copy of the document yesterday. One student in the group suggested the size of the letter might prevent it from being lost or ignored like previous correspondence with Coleman.
The group also offered cupcakes to staff members in Coleman’s office, which they said were meant to compensate for the influx of faxes and phone calls the office has recently received from GEO members. Prior to delivering the letter, GEO members sent faxes and made phone calls to the office of the President to try to reverse Coleman’s past unresponsiveness on the issue.
GEO President Rob Gillezeau, a GSRA in the University’s Department of Economics, said the battle for GSRA collective bargaining rights has been a long-term affair. According to Gillezeau, when GEO was founded in 1970, it only represented GSIs. However, he said University officials argued GSRAs should be in the same bargaining unit as GSIs.
“I think their thought was that having GSRAs in the bargaining unit would make it so that the union election would fail,” Gillezeau said. “We won the election anyway.”
As a result, Gillezeau said the union initially included GSIs, GSSAs and GSRAs. But after a couple years, the University challenged the rights of all graduate employees for union representation. The case was then taken to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, which ruled that GSIs and GSSAs are covered by GEO, but GSRAs are not.
Gillezeau said the exclusion of GSRAs reflects what he thinks is the University’s stance — that GSRAs are more interested in their dissertations than aiding the University. However, he said the research GSRAs do allows them to make significant contributions to the University.
“I think that it’s entirely clear that over the last 30 years since that decision was handed down, research is the main goal of the University today,” Gillezeau said. “As such, it’s pretty clear that GSRAs are important workers in achieving that goal for the University.”
University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the University aims to maintain its adherence to the 1981 Michigan Employment Relations Commission ruling that established membership guidelines for GEO.
“The University continues to believe in the ruling by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission that essentially separated the GSRAs from the membership in the GEO,” Fitzgerald said. “The state ruled that GSRAs are primarily students, and we continue to believe in that ruling.”
Gillezeau added that some GSRAs shouldn’t be included in GEO’s collective bargaining plan and that making the differentiation between which GSRAs are included in the unit is “not necessarily easy.”
“We do acknowledge that there are a handful of GSRAs who are in fact — especially in the later years of the Ph.D.s — doing research for their own dissertations, and those people should not be in the bargaining unit,” Gillezeau said.
Though they aren’t required to join, 70 percent of GSIs and GSSAs at the University are members of GEO, according to Gillezeau. GSIs and GSSAs can join the union and pay dues or decline to join and only pay service fees for bargaining done by GEO on their behalf, he said.
GSRAs aren’t legally covered by the GEO contract, but Gillezeau said GEO believes it represents GSRAs, as their wages are determined by negotiations between GEO and the University. Gillezeau said the research assistants are mainly fighting to have full union rights like GSIs and GSSAs do.
Gillezeau added that not only did Coleman ignore the research assistants’ efforts to unionize, but University negotiators also refused to engage with GEO on the topic.
“They said that they would not discuss permissive topics of bargaining,” he said.
As of 6 p.m. yesterday, Fitzgerald said he wasn’t sure whether Coleman had read the letter delivered to her, but it was forwarded to appropriate University representatives.
“We’ve certainly received the letter; it’s a position that’s been communicated previously to the University,” Fitzgerald said. “The president’s office has made the appropriate people in academic (human resources) aware of the letter.”