The Michigan Court of Appeals, in a ruling Thursday, upheld the immediate effect status of a state law passed earlier this year that prohibits graduate student research assistants from unionizing.
The court ruled against an appeal by Democratic lawmakers in the state Legislature who were seeking to remove the immediate effect clause from the legislation, which amended the Public Employment Relations Act to explicitly define GSRAs as students and not public employees, from taking effect immediately.
Consequently, the bill, House Bill 4246, disabled GSRAs at the University from voting on whether they wanted to form a union. Graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants are recognized as employees and have been able to unionize for decades.
Before the passage of the bill, there was a hearing pending with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission that would have re-examined a 1981 ruling that said GSRAs were not employees. Without immediate effect the bill would have taken effect 90 days after the end of the Legislature’s last session of the year, which is sometime in March 2013.
Rackham student Emily Howard, the Graduate Employees Organization communications co-chair, said she was disappointed in the ruling and added that the bill should not have been passed with immediate effect.
“Obviously this is something that we’re not happy,” she said. “Fast-tracking this bill through the state Legislature instead of actually allowing MERC to decide, I mean that was clearly a move.”
Howard argued that passing the bill with immediate effect showed “complete disrespect, not only for MERC … but also for workers’ voices.”
As for Thursday’s ruling, Howard said it was another case of lawmakers taking advantage of the political system.
“They sidestepped the legislative and democratic processes and they’re continuing to get away with it because they can,” she said.
Rackham student Stephen Raiman, the founder of Students Against GSRA Unionization, said, however, that GEO’s interpretation of events is incorrect — the legislature did not circumvent MERC, but superceded it.
“I think saying this circumvents the MERC process just reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how government works, MERC is a government agency and its there job to carry out the laws that the Legislature passes,” he said. “MERC is not the people who define what an employee is, the Legislature’s supposed to do that. MERC handles things for the people who are public employees.”
Raiman said he was thankful that immediate effect was upheld so that a decision from MERC wouldn’t be made as the bill would’ve been waiting to take effect. He continued, saying that further legal hoops would be better handled by GEO — which is a part of the national AFL-CIO — than SAGU — whose only legal representation is from the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation.
“(GEO has) a lot of lawyers, and we don’t,” he said. “We’re very happy to not have to play these legal games, that it’s just ended here.”
Still, despite repeated setbacks from the Legislature regarding GSRAs being recognized as employees, Howard said GEO will still be reaching out to GSRAs
“Even though … GSRAs can’t formally bargain with the University, (GEO) can still talk to GSRAs who come to us and try to see if we can help them,” she said.