GEO alleges GSRA was fired for advocating unionization

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By Giacomo Bologna, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 18, 2012

The ongoing fight over the right of graduate student research assistants to unionize continued to escalate yesterday as the Graduate Employees Organization held a press conference claiming that Jennifer Dibbern, a GSRA in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, had been unjustly fired due to her support of the GSRA unionization effort.

Dibbern, GEO President Samantha Montgomery and GEO member Jeremy Moore addressed a crowd of about 50 people yesterday in front of the Robert H. Lurie Engineering Center on North Campus to discuss Dibbern’s termination and laud the continuing fight for GSRAs to gain the right to unionize.

In an interview after the event, Dibbern said her relationship with her adviser, Engineering Prof. Rachel Goldman, was amicable until Goldman became aware that Dibbern supported unionizing.

Dibbern claimed she was later unjustly fired from her position on Aug. 30 for talking openly about her support for GSRA unionization. Following her termination, Dibbern said she was locked out of her lab and wasn’t allowed to continue her research.

“My GSRA work was how I paid tuition and that was how I supported myself,” Dibbern said. “It’s my job.”

Goldman declined to comment.

Dibbern said she wouldn’t have been fired if GSRAs were able to unionize, and she said she continues to support GEO’s initiative.

“I don’t think the union would have stood for it,” Dibbern said. “I think my story again is just a really clear reason why we need a union as (GS)RAs.”

Dibbern said she has “tried and exhausted all options” to resolve this issue with the University.

“I have spoken with my adviser, with my department, the College of Engineering, Rackham graduate school, with academic human resources,” Dibbern said. “Not one of these avenues has been helpful.”

Dibbern was pursuing a doctorate degree in materials science and engineering, but can no longer pursue a degree in the department. She said she is now taking classes that are unrelated to her former program.

University Spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in a statement yesterday that ultimately, the University was correct in dismissing Dibbern.

“The University does not condone threats or intimidation of, or retaliation against, graduate students for union activity or any other reason,” Fitzgerald wrote. “The University has reviewed this matter and believes that our faculty made appropriate academic decisions.”

In an interview after the press conference, Fitzgerald said the termination is an academic issue, and therefore, under federal law, its specific details cannot be discussed.

Montgomery said she was disappointed by the way the University handled the incident.

“(Dibbern’s firing is) an injustice so vile that it remains unparalleled in our 40-year-long history,” Montgomery said. “The way she has been treated by her supervisor and the administration of this university is insulting to the very core of GEO and to the rights of workers everywhere … that’s not right.”

Montgomery added that Dibbern’s firing is not an isolated incident, and has occurred various times in the past.

“There have been countless cases of intimidation, including closed-door meetings with graduate student research assistants, veiled threats from faculty and an increasingly hostile workplace for union activists,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery said the GEO, in its talks with University officials, presented a list of requirements for the University to adopt in response to this incident, including “financial and academic security (for Dibbern), formal apology and also the guarantee that this would never happen again”

While addressing the crowd, Moore, a GSRA in electrical engineering and computer science, said Dibbern’s future has been threatened by the action taken by her professor.

“(She) devoted years to building a foundation of a career which is now in jeopardy because she was subject to the whims of a single supervisor, unaccountable to any fair procedures of work evaluation,” Moore said.

In a public statement, Students Against GSRA Unionization President Stephen Raiman said that despite his group’s views, students should be free to support unionization without fear of retaliation.

“While we believe that unionization is wrong for GSRAs, no student should face academic consequences for holding the opposite view,” Raiman wrote.

Raiman added, however, that this incident should not be used to bolster the argument for unionization.

“We believe that exploiting this unfortunate event for publicity is not in the best interests of either party," Raiman wrote.

Several local organizations and unions attended in support of GEO and the ability of GSRA’s to unionize. Matt Schroeder, president of the Firefighters’ Union IAFF Local 693, said he came to support the GEO in its mission to allow GSRA the right to form a union.

“They’re fellow union members,” Schroder said. “They certainly have the right to organize and, in our opinion, we would want to see that.”

The Michigan Employment Relations Commission will hold a hearing next month to determine if GSRAs are public employees, which would allow them the right to unionize.