Throughout much of last year, the nation watched a labor battle unfold in Wisconsin. In February 2011, Republican Gov. Scott Walker introduced legislation to narrowly limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. The changes —in effect as of March 2011 — sparked some of the most dramatic political activism in years. Thousands occupied the state’s capitol, Democratic lawmakers left the state to avoid a vote and eventually the state’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of Walker’s proposals. In Michigan and at the University, the debate over graduate student research assistants’ classification — a collective bargaining issue on a smaller scale — has come to a halt. The Michigan Legislature has passed a bill classifying GRSAs as students, not employees, thereby sidestepping ongoing official proceedings. The state has set a dangerous precedent by circumventing existing legal processes and proactively inhibiting collective bargaining.
On Thursday, Senate Bill 971 passed the state House of Representatives in a party-line vote. It will now head to Gov. Rick Snyder, who’s expected to sign it into law as early as this week. The bill says a GSRA “does not have sufficient indicia of an employer-employee relationship” and “is not a public employee entitled to representation or collective bargaining rights.”
For years, groups have debated GSRA classification — University administrators, the University’s Board of Regents, the Graduate Employees’ Organization, Students Against GSRA Unionization and others have all weighed in. The battled landed at the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. Throughout February, an administrative judge held hearings on whether GSRAs should be allowed to vote for unionization. She was expected to make her recommendation to MERC by March 13.
The Republican majority’s easy passage in advance of MERC’s decision sets a dangerous precedent. The long process was nearing resolve, so the bill was surprising. MERC decisions on the matter are precedent — in 1981 the commission ruled that GSRAs couldn’t unionize. Sen. Randy Richardville (R–Monroe), the Senate Majority leader who introduced the bill, should not have initiated such a hurried resolution. Fear of an unfavorable outcome from appropriate institutions is not reason to introduce legislation. No lawmaker, Democrat or Republican, should politicize issues by overreaching ongoing bureaucratic or judicial processes.
The legislature went about stripping GSRAs’ chance for unionization with alarming expediency. The bill went through both houses and committees in about two weeks. Though normally a bill would take effect in 90 days, the House is expected to vote the bill into immediate effect. The unionization saga has proven lengthy, but this matter — which affects thousands — deserves careful consideration, not a fast vote along party lines. Republicans generally champion small, efficient government. Efficient institutions are a benefit to everyone, but not when they’re moving so quickly that they hinder democratic processes such as the MERC’s upcoming decision. A small government does not mean one that can quickly and unilaterally enacts laws to get what it wants.
The bill sets a standard by which to judge the state government’s attitude toward collective bargaining. The eventual MERC decision could have allowed GSRAs to vote on unionization — a reasonable, yet far-off solution. Still, the legislature felt reason to act swiftly. Michigan cannot be lured into a Wisconsin-like scenario, and shouldn’t further attack collective bargaining rights.