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The University of Michigan Graduate Student Research Assistants’ fight for the right to unionize gained new momentum over the summer, after the National Labor Relations Board declared research and teaching assistants at private colleges to be school employees covered by the National Labor Relations Act.

Though the decision has no direct bearing on the University as a public institution, it joins a series of legislative actions bolstering the GSRA’s bid for unionizing in recent years. Currently, only Graduate Student Instructors can unionize.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, the labor union representing Graduate Student Instructors on campus, hailed the NLRB’s conclusion online.

“Congratulations to our private university colleagues! The National Labor Relations Board found today what we’ve all known for a long time:#weareworkers!” read a post on the organization’s Facebook page.

Under a 1981 ruling by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, graduate research assistants are not public employees, and unlike graduate student instructors, cannot reap benefits such as collective bargaining, health care and tuition waivers. Starting in 2011, advocacy groups submitted two petitions lobbying for their right to unionize and challenging the 1981 ruling. The first was dismissed by MERC, but the second led to advocates securing an administrative hearing in November 2011. However, a bill introduced by State Sen. Randy Richardville (R–Monroe) and signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) banned GSRA unionization, effectively trumping MERC’s jurisdiction over the issue. In recognation of the debate on campus the decision incited, the Board of Regents passed a resolution in favor of increasing GSRA rights, despite opposition from then-University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman and some students. 

A district court, however, struck down the GSRA provision of Snyder’s bill as unconstitutional in 2014, prompting advocacy groups to resume petitioning for the adminstrative hearing on the 1981 MERC ruling. In the summer of 2014, the MERC chose to uphold the 1981 decision, stopping discussions around the issue. 

This summer, in addition to the NLRB ruling, the University settled for $165,000 in a lawsuit against Jennifer Dibbern, a former graduate student who accused the University of dismissing her for union activity. According to the Detroit Free Press, neither party is allowed to discuss the settlement.

GEO wrote it anticipates intense bargaining over its contract with the University, which expires in May of 2017.

“GEO members put together an ambitious bargaining platform,” the group’s website reads.

It will be one of the first contract decided under Right to Work legislation passed in 2013, which will .

According to the Detroit Free Press, neither parties are allowed to discuss the settlement. University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to the Daily that the summer developments do not affect the administration’s stance.

“Nothing has changed at U-M or in Michigan,” Fitzgerald wrote. “GSRA’s are excluded from union representation following a ruling by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission in 2014. Nothing has changed since then”

GEO president John Ware said while he hopes the decisions signal a changing landscape for GSRAs, the union’s upcoming year bargaining with the University will be an intense one. The contract, expiring in May 2017, will be one of the first agreement at UM fdecided under new Right to Work legislation passed in 2013.

“In this legal and political environment, we aren’t hoping for much here (for GSRAs),” he said. “But the symbolic significance can only be a good thing for the University.”

Ware pointed to two other main changes in negotiating this year: nonmandatory union membership and heightened tension between the two parties.

“This is a pivotal moment, and we face big challenges,” he said.


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