By Shoham Geva, Summer Managing News Editor
Published June 20, 2014
In a decision issued Thursday afternoon, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission ruled that graduate student research assistants at the University are not public employees, and thus are not eligible to unionize.
The ruling, which was made at the commission's June 10 meeting, was the culmination of a almost three year long legal debate on the issue.
The commission found that University GSRAs are not eligible to unionize because there was not significant enough evidence to prove that their situation had changed since 1981, when MERC ruled that the work GSRAs did primarily benefited themselves, not the University, rendering them not public employees and thus not eligible to be unionized as a collective group.
“The record establishes that in in 2012, as in 1981, a GSRA appointment closely tracks a student’s own specific academic goals,” the decision read. “Almost all GSRAs seek out projects in order to find a subject that will serve as the basis in some way for their dissertations.”
All hearings for the case were held before administrative law judge Julia C. Stern in February of 2012.
This connection between work and academics was the prime determinant in classifying GSRAs as non-public employees, as well as the close relationship typically observed between faculty and GSRA, according to the decision.
The MERC case was brought by University union Graduate Employees’ Organization and the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers in April of 2011. It represented the groups' second try to re-open the issue following an initial, unsuccessful petition for consideration. The case was temporarily stalled for almost two years up until earlier this year after the state legislature passed an amendment to Public Act 45 banning GSRA unionization in 2012, which was declared unconstitutional in February.
The unionization efforts were not contested by the University following a 6-2 vote in favor of it by the Board of Regents in 2011, though many top administrators, including University president Mary Sue Coleman, expressed opposition to the idea.
In a statement Friday morning, GEO said they withdrew their original 2011 petition on the issue on June 9th, 2014, one day before the commission’s meeting, and called MERC’s decision to rule on it the demonstration of an anti-labor agenda.
In reaction to the decision, they characterized it as inaccurate and unfair to GSRAs.
“GSRAs do work, they have a supervisor, they have to report to the lab every day, they pay taxes, and the University itself recognizes GSRAs as workers,” the statement read. “The work GSRAs do is vital to the university’s research enterprise which now has expenditures well over a billion dollars a year. To claim that GSRAs are not university employees is unjust and unethical.”
A spokesman for MERC said the decisions speak for themselves in regards to why the case was ruled on after the original petition was pulled.
AFT Michigan President David Hecker expressed similar sentiments in an interview Friday morning. He said though they weren't surprised by the decision because the current commission was all appointed by Governor Rick Snyder, who along with other state Republicans has not supported GSRA unionization efforts, it was a clear, disappointing case of an outside body interfering with an employer's own definition of who its employees are.
"GSRAs are clearly employees," he said. "The University of Michigan recognises that."
Hecker said AFT Michigan will continue working towards GSRA unionization through collaboration with local groups in the state such as GEO, as well as other advocacy efforts. He added that they are not currently considering submitting a third petition to MERC.
Stephen Raiman, founder of Students Against GSRA Unionization, which filed an amicus brief against unionization in the case and was active in earlier debates around the issue, said in a statement Thursday evening that the organization was happy to see the issue finally resolved, and to know that GSRAs could continue their research without fear of outside influences.
"We are pleased that MERC has decided to keep political interests out of academia, and allow academic decisions to be made by academics,” the statement read.
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette (R) and former University GSRA Melinda Day, who was active in earlier proceedings, also filed amicus briefs on the case in opposition to unionization.
In the case, GEO argued that though GSRAs are students, and can receive academic benefits from their work, they are ultimately performing the University’s work because the research they perform contributes directly to the University’s mission of expanding knowledge, and the grant money that pays them is deposited directly to the University, making them eligible to be considered as public employees, which would allow them to unionize.
They also argued that the University’s identical obligations, practices for hiring, and conditions for retention of the position for GSRAs as compared to someone considered a public employee qualified GSRAs as employees, as well as the fact that GSRAs, unlike someone who is only a student, receive rights under several employment laws.
The University argued that their new recognition of GSRAs as employees in 2011 qualified as significant enough change to overturn the 1981 decision. They said this recognition is present in references to GSRAs as employees in hiring manuals, as well as the provision of employee-only benefits such as sick leave and life insurance.
They also said because the University’s research budget has increased noticeably since 1981, GSRAs and the work they do now have a more direct value to the University.
Former University Provost Phil Hanlon and Victor DiRita, medical school associate dean for graduate and postdoctoral studies, as well as several University professors, including Cell and Developmental Biology Prof. Katherine Barald and Education Prof. Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar all testified for the MERC case in the February 2012 hearings . Multiple unnamed GSRAs in various different schools and fields also appeared before the committee.
Only a small number of other public universities in the country, including peer institutions the University of Iowa and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, currently have unionized GSRAs.