Laws curbing union power limited graduate students’ options in recent strike

Monday, October 12, 2020 - 1:30pm

GEO members strike in the rain to protest the University's reopening near the Central Campus Transit Center in September.

GEO members strike in the rain to protest the University's reopening near the Central Campus Transit Center in September. Buy this photo
Becca Mahon/Daily

When graduate students at the University of Michigan decided to strike in September, state law was not on their side. 

On the first day of the strike, the University filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the Graduate Employees’ Organization, the union representing more than 2,000 graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, and later followed up with a request for a preliminary injunction on Sept. 14. 

Members of GEO went on strike in protest of the University’s fall reopening plan and called for more COVID-19 protections and the right to work remotely for all graduate student instructors. They also demanded the diversion of funds from the Division of Public Safety and Security, a request the University did not grant

Facing legal pressure, GEO reluctantly accepted the University’s proposal to end the strike.

“In the face of our power, the University of Michigan decided to lean on a nearly hundred year old union-busting law to sue their own graduate students,” union leaders wrote in a Sept. 16 press release. “ … The University poured their immense resources into legal fees instead of simply protecting our community by implementing reasonable steps toward a safe and just pandemic response for all.”

Striking is one tool unions have at their disposal when bargaining with employers. However, in Michigan, it is illegal for most public employees to strike under legislation dating back to 1947.

This ban is one of several laws and court rulings that have restrained the power of unions in Michigan and across the country.

In December 2012, the Republican-controlled Michigan legislature and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder passed a law cementing right-to-work legislation in Michigan. Under the new law, no employee could be required to be an official member or pay fees supporting the union’s collective bargaining. 

Unions still must represent nonmember employees, who enjoy perks such as legal representation and negotiations with employers, often resulting in higher wages and better benefits.


Design by Kathryn Halverson

Amber McCann, a spokesperson for state Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who supports right-to-work legislation and voted for the Michigan bill in 2012, wrote in an email to The Daily that Shirkey believes workers should not be required to join or finance a union’s activities. 

“The driving force behind Senator Shirkey’s support of  ‘Freedom to Choose’ (aka RTW Legislation) was choice,” McCann wrote. “He believes unions have the ability to make their case for membership and workers have the ability to choose whether or not that membership is beneficial to them.” 

According to U-M Law professor Kate Andrias, people often misinterpret the purpose of this kind of legislation because it’s labeled “right-to-work.”

“Right-to-work is not actually about a right-to-work — it doesn’t give anyone a job or protect anyone from being fired without cause,” Andrias said. “Rather, it is simply a tactic to defund and weaken unions. The effect of right-to-work laws is to weaken workers’ bargaining power at work and their influence in the political system.” 

The 2012 right-to-work law justifies the prohibition on strikes by public employees, calling them “economic waste.”

Kat Brausch, GEO’s grievance committee co-chair, warned right-to-work laws could result in unions having too few members to sustain themselves, but clarified this isn’t currently a concern for GEO. 

“Right-to-work is intended to set up a sort of financial death spiral in a way because people do not have to be members, fewer people are paying dues,” Brausch said. “ … With less money, we have less resources to put into member organizing, which means that then there were fewer people joining the union and less money to put into organizing.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME effectively made right-to-work the national norm. The decision meant public employees do not have to pay union fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining, undermining laws in 22 states with “fair share” provisions. 

LSA professor Bob King, former president of United Auto Workers, said unions can retain members even under right-to-work laws. 

“Good contracts are what keeps high membership,” King said. “And so overall, unions that have that power in the industry or power to the employer, they keep high memberships. If they don’t have, or if they have less power to deliver the kind of contracts they want, then it impacts membership more.”

McCann said Shirkey’s support for right-to-work legislation is driven by the belief it benefits Michigan’s economy. She pointed out that unions in the state have not seen a “significant” drop in membership, “proving Senator Shirkey’s point that the union has the ability to make the case for the value of membership.”

“Michigan has absolutely experienced an economic recovery as a result of multiple factors, but the Majority Leader would argue that Michigan becoming a ‘Freedom to Choose’ state did factor into the decision-making for companies looking to Michigan to locate,” McCann wrote. “It was a policy that (made) Michigan much more economically competitive.”

Michigan’s economy has improved since the passage of the right-to-work bill, but pinpointing the impacts of a single piece of legislation is difficult. Many studies have sought to evaluate the impact of right-to-work laws, but numerous factors contribute to economic growth, so isolating those effects with certainty isn’t easy. 

While the legislation can foster a more business-friendly environment, some studies indicate adverse results in terms of union membership and wage growth.

According to one study, the Janus decision could reduce union membership among state and local government employees by 726,000 people. The authors estimated wages could fall by an average of 3.6%.

A different article in the Labor Studies Journal found right-to-work laws had no impact on employment but negatively affected other aspects of the economy.

Members of the Graduate Employees' Organization strike against the University's COVID-19 response on the Diag in September.

Members of the Graduate Employees' Organization strike against the University's COVID-19 response on the Diag in September. Buy this photo
Maddie Fox/Daily

Unions complain that such laws force their hand. The University had the advantage of favorable state legislation during the labor dispute with the graduate students. GEO criticized the school’s request for an injunction, calling the tactic threatening.

“We are all feeling a little bit upset and frustrated and devastated that we were backed into a legal corner, and we had to choose between our demands and the future of our union,” GEO spokesperson Leah Bernardo-Ciddio said.

The graduate student union was upfront about the illegality of the strike and even posted jokes about it on social media. 

They aren’t the first on campus to resort to a strike — or the threat of one — when seeking concessions from the University. In the spring of 2018, after a months-long bargaining campaign, the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, which represents non-tenure track faculty members, came close to initiating a work stoppage, which also would have violated state law. LEO called it off when the University’s bargaining team started to “move in the right direction” at a last-ditch bargaining session

LEO president Ian Robinson said the union lost approximately 10 percent of revenue when they first felt the effects of new right-to-work legislation. He added that unions have to use the options available to them when making demands on behalf of their members. According to Robinson, striking is justified in certain circumstances.

“The way I look at it is, over the years, there’s a series of promises that the University has made and not kept,” Robinson said. “Every now and then LEO should feel free to make a promise and to not keep a promise.” 

In an interview with The Daily on Oct. 1, Schlissel said the University filed for an injunction out of concern for providing undergraduates with a high-quality education. 

He emphasized that the University did not target individual graduate students. 

“We never stopped paying them, we never stopped covering their tuition, we never threatened anyone individually,” Schlissel said. “The injunction was aimed at the union as opposed to individuals. We were going to sue the union if they didn’t live up to their word to go back to work.”

The administration argued many of GEO’s demands — especially those concerning policing on campus — fell outside the scope of the union’s contract and were not relevant to employees’ working conditions, though Schlissel did acknowledge the seriousness of recent, nationwide discussion around law enforcement. He said the University is working to better understand its current practices. 

Different unions take unique approaches to organizing. Some focus solely on issues affecting their members, while others get involved with broader issues. 

“There are a couple different views of unionism,” King explained. “Some are bread and butter unionism, where you only think about your contract, and others are social unionism where you really care about the community and you try to work with employers to improve the workplace and improve the community.” 

Many of GEO’s demands affected the larger Ann Arbor community, particularly the anti-policing aspects. Brausch defended their inclusion in GEO’s platform.

“A good strong union provides, and historically has provided, a lot of benefits for the community,” Brausch said. “Unions work for not just their members, but for workers more broadly … Unions are crucial in the fight for the welfare of workers generally, not just the ones who work in their specific unions.”

Managing News Editor Leah Graham and Daily Staff Reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at and

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