University files unfair labor practice charge against grad student union

Friday, September 11, 2020 - 9:08pm

Members of the University of Michigan’s Graduate Employee Organization protest the re-opening of the University, among other causes, outside near the Central Campus Transit Center Wednesday afternoon.

Members of the University of Michigan’s Graduate Employee Organization protest the re-opening of the University, among other causes, outside near the Central Campus Transit Center Wednesday afternoon. Buy this photo
Becca Mahon/Daily

The University of Michigan is asking the state to intervene in graduate students’ ongoing strike in protest of the school’s reopening plans.

In an unfair labor practice charge filed with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission on Tuesday — the first day members of the Graduate Employees’ Union took to the picket line — the University requests that the commission order GEO to “cease and desist from unlawfully striking or conducting a work stoppage.” 

Lawyers for the University also urge the commission to require GEO to stop “repudiating” the union’s collective bargaining agreement and refrain from “violating its duty to bargain collectively” by demanding negotiations on “mandatory and/or illegal subjects of bargaining over the University’s objections.”

The filing is signed by Gloria Hage, the University’s senior associate general counsel, and Craig S. Schwartz of Butzel Long, a law firm with offices across Michigan as well as in Washington, D.C. and New York City. It names Sumeet Patwardhan, president of GEO, the union that represents more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants.

The charge highlights that it is illegal for public employees to strike in the state of Michigan. GEO’s contract with the University, which was ratified in April, also prohibits members from participating in a work stoppage. 

In a Sunday night email regarding the strike, Provost Susan Collins described the work stoppage as unnecessary and unlawful.

“We do not believe it is necessary for GEO to strike,” Collins wrote. “We successfully reached an agreement with GEO in April on its entire collective bargaining agreement. GEO’s strike falls outside of that negotiation and is based on a number of issues, some of which have very little to do with the wages, hours, and working conditions of GSIs and GSSAs. A strike is not appropriate, as the primary impact will be on our students, particularly our undergraduate students.”

In a message to undergraduates sent Wednesday, Collins called the strike “disruptive, confusing and worrisome,” reiterating the illegality of the job action. Numerous deans at colleges across campus echoed these concerns in their own emails to faculty within their departments.

The union has been upfront about the illegality of the strike, even posting about it on Twitter. In a statement addressing U-M leadership’s opposition to the work stoppage, GEO elaborated on the risks of retaliation.

“If GEO strikes when the contract is in force, the organization may not be able to collect dues,” the statement reads. “We would also be open to lawsuits and could be forced to pay damages. If the contract is not in force, the likelihood of a lawsuit is lower, but UM could still get a court order for us to stop striking and if we do not obey it, the coordinators of the strike (the GEO officers) could be placed under arrest. GEO has done work stoppages in the past, and the university has not retaliated.”

The strike runs until Friday, with the potential for reauthorization if the University does not meet the organization’s demands. Despite Patwardhan’s support for a proposal from the University, GEO members rejected a deal on Wednesday night, arguing it failed to satisfy their platform.

In an email Friday, University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote that in “every case,” the school tries “to meet the interests of all employee unions through discussion and negotiating to an agreement.” 

“Part of the agreement from our recent contract negotiations with GEO was a promise on the union’s part that its members would not strike and leave their students without instruction,” Fitzgerald said. “It was only when they went against that promise that the university took additional action.” 

Fitzgerald added that the University “stands ready to continue discussions with GEO so that all students are able to continue their studies without further interruption.”

When asked about the next steps in the charge against GEO filed with MERC, Fitzgerald directed questions to the state commission.

MERC handles labor disputes involving public and private sector employees. It also weighs in on unfair labor practice cases.  

The chair of the body, Sam Bagenstos, is a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. Bagenstos, who was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in December 2019, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Schwartz, the outside lawyer signing onto the charge, has experience with labor conflicts in higher education.

In 2019, he helped Eastern Michigan University obtain the dismissal of unfair labor practice charges brought by the union representing EMU’s tenured and tenured track faculty. EMU “prevailed” after a hearing in front of MERC over four alleged violations of the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act, according to a press release from Butzel Long.

Schwartz referred The Michigan Daily’s request for comment to Fitzgerald. In his email, Fitzgerald said the University often looks to hire outside attorneys with experience in relevant matters.

“It’s not unusual at all for the university to engage attorneys outside of the Office of the General Counsel to handle specific matters within their areas of expertise,” Fitzgerald wrote. “They work in conjunction with attorneys in OGC.”

The law firm where Schwartz works has also been involved in the debate over the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. Butzel Long attorneys represented several Michigan CEOs who sent a letter in mid-April pushing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to “reopen” the state and allow employees to return to work. The letter cited data indicating that Michigan’s COVID-19 cases had peaked. According to The New York Times, Michigan’s new daily case count peaked in early April, at 1,722 new cases on April 7. 

The CEOs noted how hard it was to “balance public health and the economy,” but argued when it comes to deciding between saving lives and saving jobs, “Michigan has enough moxie to do both at the same time.”

Whitmer later offered a path for reopening certain businesses following the firm’s efforts

COVID-19 precautions are at the heart of the graduate students’ strike in Ann Arbor. GEO has also called to reduce the police presence on campus and cut the University’s ties to law enforcement.  

The unfair labor charge takes issue with these demands, calling the aspects of the platform related to police reform — such as demilitarizing the Division of Public Safety and Security and diverting funding to the department — “non-mandatory and/or illegal subjects of bargaining.”

The charge notes that GEO’s other demands are relevant to graduate students’ work conditions, but argues that GEO has “declined to seek a resolution of such issues through the grievance and arbitration procedures of the collective bargaining agreement.”

Managing News Editor Leah Graham can be reached at leahgra@umich.edu.