After months of debate regarding graduate student research assistants’ status as employees or students, the body denying GSRAs unionize will be reconsidering its 30-year-old ruling.

After declining to reconsider the role of GSRAs in August — stating that GSRAs are students rather than employees — two of the three commissioners on the Michigan Employment Relations Commission voted yesterday to reassess the role of the roughly 2,100 GSRAs at the University.

Ruthanne Okun, director of the Michigan Bureau of Employment Relations, said the commission will review two action items regarding GSRA unionization at its next meeting in Detroit on Dec. 13. If approved, the first item would send the GSRAs’ case to judge to determine if they are entitled to participate in a MERC-conducted election that would gauge how many GSRAs want to form a union. If there is interest, MERC may consider overturning a 1981 ruling stating student researchers cannot be employees, Okun said. The other action item will deny the motion for reconsideration to unionize.

Okun said both documents will contain language denying the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation’s motion to intervene. The Foundation, which is a public interest law firm, filed the motion on July 28 and requested that MERC stand by the 1981 precedent.

The reconsideration of GSRAs’ roles comes after several months of campus-wide discussion on the topic.

On Oct. 3, the Graduate Employees’ Organization sent MERC its official position supporting that GSRAs are employees. On Nov. 4, the University submitted a clarification document to MERC pointing out the University’s Board of Regents voted 6-2 on May 19to classify GSRAs as University employees. At the same meeting University President Mary Sue Coleman expressed her disagreement with the regents on the issue.

The majority of University deans are also against classifying GSRAs as employees, and 18 current and former deans from 19 of the University’s schools and colleges wrote a letter to University Provost Philip Hanlon in June expressing this view.

Caren Weinhouse, GSRA communications chair of GEO, said GSRAs swear a loyalty oath to the University, receive W-2 forms and are eligible for medical leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, similar to all other University employees. Weinhouse said MERC should consider GSRAs as employees because of these similarities, and GSRAs’ roles have changed dramatically since the 1981 precedent MERC used to make its previous decision.

Weinhouse and other GEO representatives traveled to Lansing yesterday morning to attend MERC’s meeting. Weinhouse said she and others involved in the campaign supporting GSRAs as employees are excited to have the chance to prove that GSRAs are both employees and students.”

“The campaign is very pleased that (MERC) is reconsidering their August decision, and we hope that that reconsideration will be expeditious as the timely process is clearly a part of democracy,” Weinhouse said.

The Michigan Student Assembly formally expressed its opinion on the matter at its meeting last night. MSA’s legislative body passed a resolution with a 16-3 vote supporting GSRAs’ right to vote on whether or not to unionize. Four MSA representatives who were present at the meeting abstained from the vote.

MSA President DeAndree Watson said the resolution supports the right GSRAs have to vote to unionize. However, he said the Rackham Student Government is better suited to judge whether or not GSRAs should actually unionize because it is an issue that mostly affects their constituents.

“I’m sensitive to the concerns that were raised by … one of the students opposed to the unionization itself,” Watson said. “But, again, I think the resolution itself is narrowly tailored (to only support the right to vote).”

However, not all GSRAs are in favor of unionization. GSRA Stephen Raiman, a representative from Students Against GSRA Unionization, which has 371 members, was present at last night’s meeting in an attempt to convince MSA representatives to vote against the resolution.

“We believe our research and our lives as students are between ourselves and our departments and our advisors,” Raiman said in an interview after the vote. “We don’t believe that a third party should be interfering in that.”

At MSA’s Oct. 26 meeting, Raiman made his case why GSRAs shouldn’t be considered employees. Because GSRAs get paid for the research they do in their degree-specific fields, their academic and research pursuits are intrinsically linked, he said at the meeting.

In an interview last night, Raiman added that he thinks the MSA representatives were too caught up in whether they were pro-union or anti-union and that representatives were voting based on their preconceived ideas about general unions rather than the specific issue.

“We’re not an anti-union group, we are anti-GSRA unionization,” Raiman said.

He said in the wake of the MSA vote, his group will continue its publicity campaign to prevent a vote on unionization.

Meanwhile, Rackham student Alix Gould-Werth, a GEO member, said she is happy with the resolution. She said she is supportive of GSRA unionization because she was previously a GSRA but is now a graduate student instructor. Gould-Wert said since she experienced the benefits of unionization, she would like to see GSRAs represented in the same way as GSIs, who are represented by GEO.

“I think it’s really helpful to GSRAs, who may be nervous about expressing their opinions, to see that their student government stands behind them,” Gould-Werth said.

— Meredith Reid contributed to this report.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly paraphrased Caren Weinhouse as saying that GSRAs are not both students and employees.

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