The unending battle between the graduate student research assistants and the University continues to grow in drama and complexity. The GSRAs are fighting for their right to unionize and the University’s Board of Regents, in a party-line decision, voted to give the GSRAs the right to vote to determine if they could unionize. Key administrators — including University President Mary Sue Coleman, Provost Philip Hanlon and deans from every school and college — have publicly said they believe GSRAs aren’t employees and shouldn’t be able to organize. Growing frustration has led the GSRAs to become more active in their protests, but the battle has moved to state courts. The University needs to engage GSRAs in a civil debate to ensure a fair resolution to this matter.
The Michigan Employment Relations Commission turned over the debate to courts in December, where a state judge will rule on GSRAs’ employment status. A decision is expected next month.
On Aug. 30, Jennifer Dibbern, a GSRA in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was allegedly fired due to her involvement with the Graduate Employees’ Organization. The University claims its decision was purely academic and not in retaliation to Dibbern’s activism, even though evidence from a University e-mail seems to say otherwise. It’s unclear what exactly happened, but loud voices aren’t making it easy to understand the matter.
It’s unfortunate that University administrators have taken such drastic measures to clamp down on the protests. University administrators say these students shouldn’t unionize because they don’t consider them public employees or their research to be a legitimate job. According to Dibbern’s account of the situation, her professors were content with her performance at the University as a GSRA until her involvement as the treasurer of GEO became apparent.
GSRAs are student researchers who earn money by assisting a professor, who is their mentor, in research. Being a GSRA is not a mandatory prerequisite for a graduate degree. Many GSRAs take on the research positions to gain experience and some utilize their wage to help fund their education. The GSRAs earn money for their services as research assistants to professors and therefore are University employees.
Though University administrators argue that GSRAs are merely students and research is simply a step in their education, the fact that they are accepting pay for their work legitimizes their employment status. They could be fired for poor performance, and they have to pay taxes for what they earn. If there were no students who volunteered to do the job, the University would hire others, most likely non-students, to do the same work. The GSRAs are employees and deserve the right to unionize.
All employees have the right to collective bargaining. The GSRAs should have the right as active employees of the University to push for the benefits of a union. The University administrators’ unwillingness to talk has led to annoyance on the part of the GSRAs. This matter can’t be solved without proper dialogue. Administrators need to realize that it can no longer slide this pressing issue under the rug, and acknowledge the need for and importance of collective bargaining power for GSRAs.