When graduate students at the University of Michigan decided to strike in September, state law was definitively not on their side. 

On the first day of the strike, the University filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the Graduate Employees’ Organization, the union representing more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, and later followed up with a request for a preliminary injunction on Sept. 14. 

Members of GEO went on strike in protest of the University’s fall reopening plan and called for more COVID-19 protections and the right to work remotely for all graduate student instructors. They also demanded the diversion of funds from the Division of Public Safety and Security, a request the University did not grant

GEO reluctantly accepted the University’s proposal to end the strike because of the legal pressure the union was facing. 

“In the face of our power, the University of Michigan decided to lean on a nearly hundred year old union-busting law to sue their own graduate students,” union leaders wrote in a Sept. 16 press release. “ … The University poured their immense resources into legal fees instead of simply protecting our community by implementing reasonable steps toward a safe and just pandemic response for all.”

Striking is one tool unions have at their disposal to increase their power when bargaining with employers. However, in Michigan, it is illegal for most public employees to strike under the 1947 Public Employment Relations Act

This ban is one of several pieces of legislation and court rulings that have restrained the power of unions both in Michigan and across the country.

In December 2012, the Republican-controlled Michigan legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder passed a law cementing right-to-work legislation in Michigan. Under the new law, no employee could be required to be an official, dues-paying member or to pay fees supporting the union’s collective bargaining. 

Unions are still required to represent nonmember employees, who continue benefiting from many union activities such as legal representation and negotiations with employers, often resulting in higher wages and better benefits. 

Amber McCann, a spokesperson for state Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who supports right-to-work legislation and voted for the Michigan bill in 2012, wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily that Shirkey believes workers should not be required to join or finance a union’s activities. 

“The driving force behind Senator Shirkey’s support of  ‘Freedom to Choose’ (aka RTW Legislation) was choice,” McCann wrote. “He believes unions have the ability to make their case for membership and workers have the ability to choose whether or not that membership is beneficial to them.”

According to Kate Andrias, professor at the University of Michigan Law School, who studies labor law, because this kind of legislation is labeled as right-to-work, people often misunderstand its purpose, which she said is to weaken unions.  

“Right-to-work is not actually about a right-to-work — it doesn’t give anyone a job or protect anyone from being fired without cause,” Andrias said. “Rather, it is simply a tactic to defund and weaken unions. The effect of right-to-work laws is to weaken workers’ bargaining power at work and their influence in the political system.” 

The 2012 right-to-work law justifies the prohibition on strikes by public employees, claiming regardless of the merit of the controversy, they are an “economic waste” and that the state’s residents should always be “considered, respected and protected.”

Ian Robinson, president of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, which represents non-tenure track faculty members, said the union lost approximately 10 percent of revenue when they first felt the effects of new right-to-work legislation. However, he added this is not where he thinks the union gets its power.

“Power doesn’t really come from money, at least not at the margins,” Robinson said. “I mean, you need a certain amount of money in a union to hire quality staff people to help support the volunteers that are really at the core of the union work in union power. If you don’t have a good volunteer base and a high level of commitment from quite a lot of volunteers, you can have a lot of money and still be very weak.” 

Kat Brausch, Rackham student and grievance committee co-chair of GEO, warned that right-to-work laws could result in unions having too few members or funds to continue, but clarified this is not currently a concern for GEO. 

“Right-to-work is intended to set up a sort of financial death spiral in a way because people do not have to be members, fewer people are paying dues,” Brausch said. “The union has less money to spend on both our sort of day-to-day activities, our collective bargaining, our general support for our members and things like that. And we have to put more of our efforts into member organizing to make sure that we get as many members as possible.” 

“But with less money, we have less resources to put into member organizing, which means that then there were fewer people joining the union and less money to put into organizing,” Brausch added.

LSA professor Bob King is a former president of United Auto Workers, a prominent union in the U.S. and Canada with more than 980,000 members. King said unions can retain members even when subject to right-to-work laws. 

“UAW is still able to have an effective voice and effective power to get good contracts,” King said. “So good contracts are what keeps high membership, I think. And so overall, unions that have that power in the industry or power to the employer, they keep high memberships. If they don’t have, or if they have less power to deliver the kind of contracts they want, then I think it impacts membership more.”

McCann said Shirkey’s support for right-to-work legislation is driven by the belief it would benefit the Michigan economy. 

“Michigan has absolutely experienced an economic recovery as a result of multiple factors, but the Majority Leader would argue that Michigan becoming a ‘Freedom to Choose’ state did factor into the decision-making for companies looking to Michigan to locate,” McCann wrote. “It was a policy that (made) Michigan much more economically competitive. Furthermore, union membership has not seen a significant loss of members — proving Senator Shirkey’s point that the union has the ability to make the case for the value of membership.”

There has long been a national trend toward restricting unions and strengthening right-to-work legislation. 

In 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court held that public sector union fair share fees were lawful and could be used for collective bargaining in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education. The ruling was overturned in 2018 with Janus v. AFSCME, making right-to-work the national norm. 

The decision meant public employees do not have to pay union fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining, undermining the laws in 22 states with “fair share” provisions requiring non-members to pay these fees. 

Michigan’s economy has improved since the passage of the right-to-work bill, but pinpointing the impacts of a single piece of legislation is a difficult task. Many academic studies have sought to evaluate the results of right-to-work laws, but numerous factors contribute to economic growth. While this legislation can help foster a more business-friendly environment, determining those effects with certainty isn’t easily done. 

However, some studies indicate adverse results in terms of union membership and wage growth.

According to a study by Frank Manzo, the policy director of the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, and Robert Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Janus decision could reduce union membership among state and local government employees by 726,000 people. Manzo and Bruno also estimated wages for that group of employees could fall by an average of 3.6%.

A different article in the Labor Studies Journal found that right-to-work laws had no impact on employment and negatively affected other aspects of the economy. 

While state law was on the University’s side in the labor dispute with the graduate students, the union and their supporters were frustrated with the school’s request for an injunction against GEO — the University’s own students.

In the aftermath of the strike, GEO spokesperson Leah Bernardo-Ciddio said the union felt like its hand had been forced.

“We are all feeling a little bit upset and frustrated and devastated that we were backed into a legal corner, and we had to choose between our demands and the future of our union,” Bernardo-Ciddio said.

The graduate students aren’t the first on campus to resort to a strike — or the threat of one — when seeking concessions from the University. In the spring of 2018, after a months-long bargaining campaign, LEO members came close to initiating a work stoppage, which also would have violated state law. LEO called off the work stoppage when the union determined that the University’s bargaining team had started to “move in the right direction” at a last-ditch bargaining session

Robinson said unions have to use the options available to them when making demands on behalf of their members.

“The way I look at it is, over the years, there’s a series of promises that the University has made and not kept,” Robinson said. “Every now and then LEO should feel free to make a promise and to not keep a promise.” 

According to Robinson, striking is justified in certain circumstances.

“My view has been, it’s the law, but we used to have apartheid laws, we used to have laws against Black and white people using the same water fountains,” Robinson said. “There’s laws that you should obey because they’re morally sound and everybody benefits from them and everyone should follow them, and there’s laws that really ought to be broken because they are unjust laws.” 

King also thought GEO’s strike was valid, despite the no-strike clause and prohibitions in state law, noting the contentious history of unions. Before labor law enshrined workers’ right to unionize, organizers often faced violence and intimidation at the hand of their employers.

The graduate student union was upfront about the illegality of the strike and posted jokes about it on social media. GEO noted that the union could be subject to court orders demanding that members get back to work, and in a document responding to concerns about the work stoppage, GEO wrote that “if we do not obey it, the coordinators of the strike (the GEO officers) could be placed under arrest.” 

King called the University’s decision to seek an injunction “horrendous” and said it was a “union-busting tool.”

“It was just an unnecessary escalation,” King said. 

In an interview with The Daily on Oct. 1, Schlissel said the University chose to file for an injunction against GEO because the school was primarily concerned with providing undergraduates with a high-quality education. 

He also emphasized that while the University did take action against GEO, it did not target individual graduate students. 

“We never stopped paying them, we never stopped covering their tuition, we never threatened anyone individually,” Schlissel said. “The injunction was aimed at the union as opposed to individuals. We were going to sue the union if they didn’t live up to their word to go back to work.”

The administration argued many of GEO’s demands — especially those concerning policing on campus — fell outside the scope of the union’s contract and were not relevant to employees’ working conditions, though Schlissel did acknowledge the seriousness of recent, nationwide discussion around law enforcement. He said the University is working to better understand its current practices. 

“I have nothing but respect and gratitude to the GEO (members) for bringing this up, but it’s not just a GEO issue,” Schlissel said. “It’s an undergraduate student issue, it’s a schools and colleges issue, it’s a city of Ann Arbor issue. So one group doesn’t get to demand the agenda on an issue that doesn’t uniquely affect that group, that affects all of us.”

King said different unions take unique approaches to working with employers. Some focus solely on issues affecting their members, whereas others are involved with issues impacting the community. Many of GEO’s demands affected the larger University and Ann Arbor community, especially its anti-policing platform.

“There are a couple different views of unionism,” King explained. “Some are bread and butter unionism, where you only think about your contract, and others are social unionism where you really care about the community and you try to work with employers to improve the workplace and improve the community.” 

Brausch defended GEO’s inclusion of anti-policing demands in its platform. She said she believes unions should take on issues affecting other workers and the community, not just ones affecting their members and their contract. 

“A good strong union provides, and historically has provided, a lot of benefits for the community,” Brausch said. “ … Unions work for not just their members, but for workers more broadly. And I was actually really happy to see that we were bringing that sort of mindset into the strike that we went on … Unions are crucial in the fight for the welfare of workers generally, not just the ones who work in their specific unions.”

Managing News Editor Leah Graham and Daily Staff Reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu and eruberg@umich.edu.

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