GEO weighs impact of right-to-work law

By Stephen Yaros, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 24, 2013

Although Wednesday night was only their first meeting of the year, the Graduate Employees’ Organization was already focused on what will define their group for 2013: figuring out how to function under Michigan’s new right-to-work legislation.

Right-to work legislation, which has been passed in 23 other states, allows employees in union represented workplaces to not automatically have dues deducted from his or her pay. The law's moves through Michigan's legislature at the end of the 2012 session drew headlines nationwide.

Although the new rules officially goes into effect in March of this year, GEO’s current contract runs through March 1, 2014. While this does not affect GEO employees as of now, future membership is at stake, union officials say.

Rackham student Emily Howard, communications co-chair for GEO, wrote in an e-mail interview that the fear among union advocates is that, with less members and money, unions around the state risk diminished bargaining power.

“GEO’s bargaining power is people power,” Howard wrote. “As long as members stay organized keep active, bargaining should proceed as usual.”

Non-members and the media were prohibited from attending Wednesday night’s GEO meeting, but Howard wrote that health insurance was a major concern expressed.

“The benefit most in danger under this legislation is … health insurance,” Howard wrote. “Staff organizers have talked to dozens of members who have said that without zero-premium GradCare, they could not afford to attend grad school at UM.”

However, Howard argued that this will not be a problem for GEO. She noted that as long as most members stay active, right-to-work legislation will have little to no effect.

“GEO has an advantage because since we have a completely democratic structure and such a high turnover rate in our membership, bottom-up, member-to-member organizing is already what we’re used to,” Howard wrote.

Howard worries the disconnected unions will suffer the most, and GEO’s member-focused strategies are more effective than the traditional top-down model.

GEO’s membership consists of graduate student instructors and graduate student assistants, totaling approximately 1,600 members per year.

Although the legislation is unpopular within union ranks, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and the Republican-majority Michigan House of Representatives and Senate created the legislation in hopes of making Michigan’s economy more attractive to business.

Legislators hope that more businesses and workers will move to the state because of the added freedom.

Follow Stephen on Twitter at @StephenYaros.