After a recent court ruling, the debate surrounding the collective bargaining rights of graduate student research assistants has gained new energy. The Feb. 6 district court decision declared parts of a 2012 law barring GSRA unionization unconstitutional.

However, the decision does not mean total victory for union organizers. Instead, it clears the way for the Graduate Employees Organization to challenge the existing classification that prevents GSRAs from unionizing.

The provisions found unconstitutional last week are a part of Public Act 45, which was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in March 2012. This law included a provision declaring that GSRAs were not entitled to unionization.

The provision was thrown out by the court on the grounds that it violated the state constitution’s “change of purpose clause.” Since the bill’s original draft was meant to address the power of emergency financial managers for municipalities — not collective bargaining rights — the court deemed the GSRA amendment unconstitutional.

The GEO, in partnership with the Michigan state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, first reopened the issue of GSRA unionization in summer 2011, when it began making plans to include GSRAs in their representation.

GSRAs are currently banned from unionizing in the state due to a 1981 ruling by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. The commission decided that GSRAs are not public employees and thus are not eligible to hold a union contract as a collective group. To pave the way for unionization, organizers would need to lobby for GSRAs to be classified as public employees.

After an original petition to MERC asking for reconsideration of the issue was dismissed, the group secured a special administrative hearing on the issue in response to a second petition in November 2011.

However, shortly after that decision, State Sen. Randy Richardville (R–Monroe) introduced SB 971, which became the law that was struck down last week. The bill banned GSRA unionization completely, effectively ending the debate on the issue until now.

University GSRA Christie Toth was a plaintiff in the case through the Graduate Employee’s Union, which currently represents graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants at the University.

The University’s Board of Regents also joined as an intervener, or a party not initially involved in the lawsuit but which chooses to join the plaintiff or defendant. In 2011, the board voted to support GSRA unionization, while University President Mary Sue Coleman expressed opposition to the move.

Chris Skovron, co-acting president of the GEO, said the law seemed to be a direct targeting of the GEO’s on-campus push to include University GSRAs in its representation.

“It was incredibly disappointing when the legislation passed,” Skovron said. “We thought it was very vindictive.”

It’s unclear what will happen in regard to the 2011 to 2012 proceedings now that the legislative ban has been lifted. In a statement, Ruthanne Okun, director of the Michigan Bureau of Employment Relations, said no decision on how to respond to the court’s decision has been made.

“The Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) has not determined how it will proceed following the recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Goldsmith,” Okun wrote. “MERC is thoroughly reviewing all available options before it decides on its next course of action.”

Skovron said the GEO has been carefully exploring several potential paths of action as well, and hasn’t yet chosen which one to follow.

“We’re still sort of taking stock of where we are,” he said.

Another complication in the matter is a potential appeal of the district court’s decision by other groups who expressed opposition in the past, such as Michigan’s attorney general Bill Schuette (R) or the state legislature.

Students Against GSRA Unionization, a University group, also expressed opposition, but SAGU founder Stephen Raiman said the group does not have any concrete plans in response to the ruling, and probably will not take action unless there’s another large pro-unionization push on campus.

“We formed SAGU because we want to just remain students and we don’t want to get involved with politics and these things,” Raiman said. “So we’re not going to become involved with anything unless we feel like it’s necessary; we’d rather just stay out of it.”

Skovron said the GEO is still waiting to see whether an appeal will occur before it decides on what to do next, as that will factor into its deliberations. In the meantime, he added that the GEO will focus on continuing to do what it considers its primary function: organizing University graduate students.

“We think it’s time to bring this issue back to campus, instead of letting the legislature decide for us,” he said.

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