LANSING — After hearing opposing testimonies from students and faculty, the Michigan House Government Operations Committee moved Senate Bill 971 to the Michigan House of Representatives in a 3-2 decision along party lines.
SB 971, which was passed by the state Senate last week, would amend the Public Employment Relations Act to declare that Graduate Student Research Assistants are not public employees and therefore cannot unionize. The bill would circumvent the Michigan Employment Relations Commission, which is planning to meet next month in a hearing that could potentially change precedent on its original ruling in 1981 that GSRAs are not public employees.
While the bill was not voted on today by the full House, various officials indicated that when voted on, it will likely be passed and then signed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder.
State Rep. Vicki Barnett (D–Farmington Hills), who has a son who serves as a graduate research assistant at Purdue University, voted against the bill being moved to the House and said if the MERC hearing comes to fruition, she believes it will result similarly to the 1981 decision.
“I think there’s already processes through the MERC system that should proceed,” Barnett said. “If all of these arguments as treating graduate research students as employees versus researchers and students are valid and strong and accurate, then MERC would decide the same thing it did in the 80s.”
State Rep. Tom McMillin (R–Rochester Hills), a University alum, voted to move the bill to the House, and said GSRAs should not be considered public employees. He added that he was disappointed that the University’s Board of Regents passed a resolution in opposition to the bill earlier this month.
“This is trying to get in between students and the faculty,” he said. “I think it’s pathetic that six members of the Board of Regents would go in this direction and put in risk the greatness of the University just for political posturing and political motives.”
Engineering Prof. Fawwaz Ulaby recently drafted an open letter to the regents expressing his disagreement with their 6-2 decision in favor of GSRAs being identified as public employees. The petition, which currently has 788 signatures, including 324 faculty members, 453 graduate and post-doctoral students, and Regents Andrea Fischer Newman (R–Ann Arbor) and Andrew Richner (R–Grosse Pointe Park) — the sole republicans on the board.
McMillin added that he felt it was appropriate in advancing the legislation to not wait for MERC to hear its case.
“When you see a train wreck that’s about to occur, you try and stop it if you can,” he said. “The legislators see gray areas and try and make them more black and white.”
At the University, sentiments about the issue continue to be mixed among students and officials.
Rackham student Melissa Sanders, former vice president of the Graduate Employees Organization, said a legislative bill was not the correct avenue to resolve the dispute. Currently, graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants are represented by GEO. GSRAs, however, are not members of the union and can only be advocated for by GEO.
“GEO believes that the Michigan Employment Relations Commission should rule on the GSRA’s employment status without interference,” she said. “It’s wrong and inappropriate for the state legislators to circumvent that process.”
Sanders said more than 1,400 GSRAs have signed cards in support of GSRA unionization. Currently, there are about 2,200 GSRAs at the University and at the Flint and Dearborn campuses.
Rackham student and GSRA Melinda Day attended the hearing as a member of Students Against GSRA Unionization and said GSRA unionization would disrupt the “close and personal relationship” that she has with her adviser.
“Anytime you change the status of someone (to an employee from a mentee) … you’re putting in barriers that now your adviser has to be wary of,” Day said. “There are very different relationship expectations between a mentor-mentee relationship than there is in an employer-employee relationship.”
In her testimony, Day said GSRA students who oppose GSRA unionization have been “abandoned by the University.”
“Today, graduate students at the University of Michigan are being held hostage due to an act of collusion between the majority party members of the Board of Regents and the Graduate Employees Organization,” she said.
James Henderson, a Rackham student and GSRA who spoke at the hearing against the bill, said GSRAs are employees and should be entitled to their rights.
“You’re not getting paid just to be a student,” Henderson said. “It is possible to distinguish work you do as a research assistant from work you do as a student so there’s no reason to (not be allowed to unionize).”
Sanders said GSRAs do research for both their own studies and for the University and that time spent on research for the University detracts from time spent on their research, potentially delaying the time at which they graduate.
“(Unionization) would protect GSRAs’ ability to work on the research they need to do for their dissertation,” she said.
If GSRAs unionize, they would have to pay union dues. Sanders said GSIs and GSSAs have to pay around $200 a semester to be a part of GEO, but that GSRAs would not necessarily pay that much, but would have to decide for themselves how much they would have to pay for membership in the union.
State Rep. Jim Stamas (R–Midland), the chair of the Government Operations Committee, said he did not know when the bill would be voted on, but noted that he believes issues affecting students are important
“I think anytime that we’re dealing with students and make sure that they’re put first, absolutely, it should be a priority,” Stamas said.
Stephen Raiman, founder of SAGU and Rackham student, said he approved of the results of the House committee.
“We intend to support this bill in any way we can,” Raiman said. “ I hope this will be the end of it.”