Viewpoint: Give employee benefits fairly


Published October 30, 2011

The University of Michigan chapter of the American Association of University Professors strongly opposes Michigan HB 4770 and HB 4771 — the bills before the Michigan Legislature seeking to prohibit state employers, including Michigan’s public colleges and universities, from offering employees benefits for domestic partners and even eliminating that as a possible topic of collective bargaining for units in which state employees are unionized.

Faculty are widely in agreement that this is fundamentally an issue of fairness for the employees concerned and that the University and the state, as employers, should not discriminate against any class of their employees nor prevent employees from enjoying the full fruits of their labors in equal measure to their contributions. We stand by all our colleagues in the faculty and staff in their rightful entitlement to the full respect and compensation which is offered to their peers. We deplore the continuing attempt to roll back the rights of faculty and staff to collective bargaining or to limit the scope of bargaining by fiat. A free people should not accept such disregard for their right to bargain over the conditions of their employment.

In addition to this fundamental reason for our opposition, we feel that the proposed measures seriously compromise the constitutional autonomy of Michigan’s three main universities and expect this to surface in legal challenges, where the merits of this autonomy will be weighed against those of the ballot initiative Michigan State Proposal 04-2 of 2004, the legal basis for the challenges to domestic partner benefits. We feel the wording of Prop 04-2 was disingenuous and even misleading, and that the initiative’s proposers changed their stated interpretation very shortly after the measure passed to cover denial of unmarried co-resident benefits. We hope that this amendment, as applied to employee compensation, will fail in large measure under court challenges. We are encouraged in this by legal challenges already making headway against the state’s anti-affirmative action initiative of 2006. Insofar as faculty compensation gets intertwined with federal research support, federal non-discrimination norms will have to be squared away with Michigan practice, and it seems unlikely that HB 4770 and HB 4771 will pass such review in that context.

We back the University in its claim that national trends in employee benefit packages make unmarried co-resident benefits an important component of compensation packages for faculty and staff recruitment. As those responsible for the academic quality of our future faculty colleagues, current faculty stand firmly in support of keeping our institution competitive nationally. The state of Michigan is not in any position of economic strength whereby it can shrug off its need to remain competitive in those areas, like higher education, which will prove essential for its renaissance.

The fundamental reason we oppose HB 4770 and HB 4771 is basic fairness and respect for all our faculty and staff colleagues. We call upon Michigan residents to demand that of the Legislature. Forms for writing to your representative and other state officials are available on the web site of the Michigan Conference of the AAUP:

Finally, we encourage all faculty readers who are sympathetic with this cause, or the others for which we stand, to join the AAUP and strengthen our voice in this and future debates:

Let us unite in support of all our faculty, staff and friends targeted by these legislative initiatives!

Dan Burns is the interim president of the University of Michigan AAUP chapter.