Deans share opposition to GSRA unionization

By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published October 2, 2011

University officials have previously expressed in public their concern about the University’s recent move to grant graduate student research assistants the right to union. And recently, the majority of deans have also shared their opinions to University Provost Philip Hanlon in a private letter.

In the letter, which was acquired by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, current and former deans from 18 of the University’s 19 schools and colleges shared their reservations about the possible unionization to Hanlon. The deans wrote that while they respect the decision of the University’s Board of Regents to allow GSRAs to have collective bargaining rights, unionization would “put at risk the excellence” of the University.

“We note that graduate student research assistants are not unionized at the peer institutions against whom the University competes for faculty and graduate students …” the deans wrote. “We worry that a GSRA union would make Michigan an outlier when the best and brightest graduate students compare research opportunities, and when we work to recruit excellent research faculty.”

The deans aren’t the only University administrators who have disagreed with the unionization allowance. University President Mary Sue Coleman expressed her apprehension about granting GSRAs collective bargaining rights at the regents meeting in May. Despite Coleman’s public objections, the regents voted 6-2, along party lines, to allow the GSRAs the right to unionize.

According to the Mackinac Center — a conservative think tank based in Midland, Mich. — Christopher Kendall, dean of the School of Music Theatre & Dance, was the lone dean not to sign the letter to Hanlon, which was marked “Confidential – By Hand Delivery.” However, in an e-mail to the Mackinac Center, Kendall wrote that he supports the position outlined in the letter.

“We didn't sign it simply because the role of our two GSRAs doesn't correspond precisely with the description in the letter,” Kendall wrote. “Again, however, the (School of Music, Theater & Dance) was strongly in accord with the principles expressed by the deans."

Hanlon, speaking through a University spokeswoman, declined to comment on the letter.

In her remarks to the regents in May, Coleman said Hanlon agreed with her that GSRAs are University students, not employees.

“A student’s performance as a research assistant is really indistinguishable from his or her progress as a graduate student,” Coleman said at the time.

Coleman said at the meeting that her own experiences as a young researcher helped formulate her opinion. She said the University works hard to ensure GSRAs receive comparable wages and benefits to graduate student instructors, who are represented by the Graduate Employees Organization.

“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,” Coleman told the regents. “Far from it. He was my mentor, my tutor and my colleague as I progressed in my course of study.”

However, despite the regents’ decision, GSRAs won’t be able to unionize just yet. In August, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission upheld a 1981 ruling that contends GSRAs are students and are not considered public employees.

The union has appealed the ruling, and Rackham student Sam Montgomery, the president of GEO, said in an interview yesterday that GEO will submit more information to MERC in hope that the board rules in GEO’s favor at its monthly meeting on Oct. 11.

“(MERC) needed to have more facts on the ground about (research assistant) employees, and we’ve been collecting those facts and will submit them to MERC,” Montgomery said.

GEO believes GSRAs are University employees who deserve the right to collectively bargain, Montgomery said.

“There’s no evidence that the union for GSRAs would harm the research prowess of the University,” Montgomery said. “It wouldn’t disrupt the employer-employee relationship or detract from the University’s ability to attract the best grad students.”

She added that GEO, which was founded in 1975, has benefited its members by negotiating for salary increases, affordable health insurance and waivers for tuition costs.

“It’s all those things that help to make our University attractive to the best and brightest grad students,” Montgomery said.