Concerns about unionizing for GSRAs addressed in meeting

Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 22, 2011

Representatives from the University’s Graduate Employees’ Organization discussed concerns about the unionization of certain graduate student employees at a meeting last night organized by graduate student research assistants.

Walter Eagle, a GSRA and the president of the Aerospace Graduate Student Council, helped organize the meeting, which was held in a conference room in the François-Xavier Bagnoud Building on North Campus.

Eagle wrote in an e-mail that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the unionization of GSRAs with the aerospace department. Some GSRAs in attendance asked members of GEO prepared questions and also discussed concerns regarding joining the union.

Attendees of the meeting expressed their uneasiness about paying dues to be part of GEO’s collective bargaining agreement. They also discussed the differences between GSRAs and graduate student instructors and why they should, or should not, be included in GEO’s contract with the University.

GEO President Rob Gillezeau, a GSRA in the University’s Department of Economics, estimated that 70 to 80 percent of GSRAs are in favor of being included under GEO's contract and collective bargaining rights.

Gillezeau said at the meeting he thinks including GSRAs under GEO’s contract would give the organization more democratic power and enable it to protect vulnerable members of the University community.

“It’s about signaling power,” Gillezeau said. “We are much more likely to signal power with GSRAs.”

Mike Benson, president of Rackham Student Government, asked if it was possible for the GSRAs to organize in a union when their research and work are more unpredictable and less scheduled than that of GSIs, who teach regular classes.

Gillezeau said GEO’s contract would need to be reworked to account for these differences, but he thinks GSRAs should be included in the contract.

In an interview Friday, Jeff Frumkin, assistant vice provost and senior director of the Department of Academic Human Resources, said the University does not want to discuss unionizing GSRAs at this time.

“The University is not interested in voluntarily recognizing GSRAs as having the ability to organize,” Frumkin said. “It is not really a good idea.”

Frumkin said he doesn’t think the function of GSRAs has changed much since 1981 when the University ruled not to include them within GSI’s collective bargaining rights. He said GSRAs can utilize resources in the University’s central offices in cases of discrimination or abuse by their superiors.

Patrick O’Mahen, former communications chair of GEO and a former Michigan Daily columnist, said after the meeting he realized it was time for GSRAs to unionize when he noticed vacant jobs that should be available to GSRAs were being filled without being posted publicly beforehand.

“You really don’t need a union until you need a union,” O’Mahen said.

O’Mahen said some GSRAs aren’t receiving time off over winter break due to the time-sensitive demands of research. He said he thinks they should be compensated for having to work during the holiday. Despite the setbacks GSRAs face, O’Mahen said he feels most are in a decent position at the University.

“This is the University of Michigan,” O’Mahen said. “Things are pretty good here most of the time.”

At the public comments segment of the University Board of Regents meeting last week, GEO members expressed concern about several issues that affect graduate students — including the possibility of including GSRAs under GEO’s contract.

Members of GEO also sent an oversized letter to University President Mary Sue Coleman earlier this month which stated their request for collective bargaining rights under GEO’s contract.

Daily News Editor Joseph Lichterman contributed to this report