Regents pass resolution decrying state Senate bill

By Peter Shahin, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 21, 2012

Even though none of the University’s regents were in the room, the tension was palpable.

At a contentious 8 a.m. teleconference meeting yesterday, the University’s Board of Regents met to consider a motion to state the body’s opposition to pending legislation in the Michigan Senate that would formally disqualify graduate student research assistants from classification as public employees — rendering them ineligible for unionization. The regents voted 6-2, in a party-line vote, in support of the motion. The Graduate Employees’ Organization is currently working within the Michigan Employment Relations Commission’s system to achieve a vote for GSRAs on unionization.

Before the debate on whether or not the motion would be approved by the board, Regents Andrea Fischer Newman (R–Ann Arbor) and Andrew Richner (R–Grosse Pointe Park), the sole Republicans on the board, expressed their belief that the meeting was not called properly according to Regents’ Bylaws and the Michigan Open Meetings Act. Newman and Richner voted against the resolution.

According to the bylaws, three regents or the University president can request an emergency meeting to take action on a particular issue, but it was unclear whether or not University President Mary Sue Coleman had declared this an emergency meeting. In the meeting, Coleman said she had not formally declared this an emergency, but a previous e-mail sent to the regents implied that the meeting should be considered an emergency, Regent Laurence Deitch (D–Bingham Farms) said.

It was unclear which three regents had also declared the meeting to be an emergency.

“If we’re going to take a position, we should have a public meeting under the auspices of the Open Meetings Act,” Newman said. “This is not that meeting.”

The only notification for the meeting was an e-mail sent to the media at 10:50 p.m. Monday, University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said. There was no apparent posting of the meeting on the regents’ website or in the Fleming Administration Building.

Suellyn Scarnecchia, the University’s vice president and general counsel, said she thinks the meeting is considered legal based on the bylaws, but was pressed on the issue by several regents.

“The definition (of emergency) is not provided in the bylaws, and it is based on any opinion of the president or three members of the board,” Scarnecchia said.

Though the issue of the legality of the meeting was left unresolved, Regent Laurence Deitch (D–Bingham Farms) proposed a resolution stating the regents’ formal opposition to Senate Bill 971, which would bar GSRAs from obtaining union representation or collective bargaining rights since they would not be considered public employees.

“Adoption of this law would be tantamount to changing the rules of the game in the middle of that game,” Deitch said. “To do so would be a violation of due process which is inconsistent with the core values of the University.”

Deitch was careful to stress that his resolution neither favored nor opposed the formation of the union, but instead focused on allowing the current process within MERC to continue without interference from the legislature.

“The regents have not, and I emphasize, have not, taken a position on whether the union should win an election or not, and we do not do so today.” Deitch said. “The regents’ decision is predicated on our support for freedom of choice for valuable members of the university community.”

Deitch’s motion also instructed Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, to use the University’s resources to lobby against the bill in Lansing.

At the meeting, Newman expressed her opposition to the motion and found it inappropriate for the University to take a position toward legislation in this case.

“The idea that due process precludes legislative action implies a basic misunderstanding of control over government,” Newman said. “Without the legislative policies and goals as a framework, the MERC has no framework at all.”

Richner also opposed the motion, stating his belief that the University should support the legislation rather than oppose it.