DEARBORN — In a rare move, University President Mary Sue Coleman voiced her disapproval with the University’s Board of Regents as the board voted to give Graduate Student Research Assistants collective bargaining rights as official employees of the University at their monthly meeting Thursday.
The 6-2 vote came after months of lobbying by the Graduate Employees’ Organization for increased bargaining rights for GSRAs, including various rallies and petitions delivered to Coleman’s office. While GSRAs have not yet been granted the ability to join GEO, they now have the right to unionize.
At the meeting, held at the Fairlane Center at the University’s campus here, Regent Julia Darlow (D–Ann Arbor) brought forth the resolution to grant increased rights to GSRAs.
“Consistent with the University of Michigan’s proud history of strong positive and mutually productive labor relations, the Board of Regents supports the rights of Graduate Student Research Assistants, whom we recognize as employees, to determine for themselves whether they choose to organize,” Darlow read from the resolution.
Coleman said her experiences as a graduate student aiding in research initiatives and later as a Ph.D. candidate have led her to see research assistants as students and not employees, adding that University Provost Philip Hanlon also agrees with her on the issue.
“A student’s performance as a research assistant is really indistinguishable from his or her progress as a graduate student,” Coleman said.
Coleman expressed her concern about characterizing research assistants as employees, and said that doing so could jeopardize the relationship between the students and their advisers.
“When I was a graduate student, I did not see myself as working for the university and I did not see my faculty mentor as my employer,” she said. “Far from it. He was my mentor, my tutor and my colleague as I progressed in my course of study.”
She added that current University standards already financially assist GSRAs in ways similar to GSIs and other teaching assistants, and because of this, additional resolutions such as the one passed at the meeting today are unnecessary.
“The University’s standard and long-standing policy has ensured that research assistants receive earnings and benefits increases comparable to those provided to GSIs so they are not at a disadvantage when compared to teaching assistants,” Coleman said.
Regents Andrew Richner (R–Grosse Pointe Park) and Andrea Fischer Newman (R–Ann Arbor) voted against the resolution.
Richner said during the meeting that he felt unprepared to make such a decision on the issue because he received a copy of the resolution only minutes before the meeting began.
Richner added that it was “unprecedented” for the regents to disagree with Coleman on an issue of this magnitude.
In an interview after the meeting, Newman said she supports unions, but doesn’t consider GSRAs to be University employees and, therefore doesn’t believe they should have the right to unionize.
“I do not believe that the board should’ve done what it did today,” Newman said.
Newman added that the move to qualify GSRAs as employees is a much different move than what GEO was vying for during their contract negotiations earlier this year.
David Hecker, president of Michigan’s American Federation of Teachers — a group that oversees GEO and the Lecturer Employees’ Organization at the University — said GSRAs deserve to be recognized for their work.
“Their work benefits the University,” Hecker said. “They get paid for that work.”
Hecker said MAFT filed a motion with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission in late April to set up a democratic election for GSRAs to vote on whether they’d like to be included under GEO’s contract or not. He said GSRAs have voiced “overwhelming support” in favor of joining GEO.
Hecker said that if a majority of the approximately 2,100 GSRAs vote to be included under GEO’s contract, the GSRAs will receive collective bargaining rights and pay dues to the organization.
“We want to work out an election as quickly as possible because that’s what (GSRAs) deserve.” Hecker said.
GEO’s contract — which was approved in March after months of bargaining sessions — aimed to give GSRAs the option to join the union, but the administration refused to discuss the issue with bargaining team members.
While the contract marked milestones — like granting unprecedented rights for disabled student employees and parents — the organization was unable to persuade the University to agree that GSRAs could organize with them.
While the resolution passed by the regents denotes that GSRAs can now unionize and create a contract, Regent Lawrence Deitch (D–Bingham Farms) said he doesn’t think the contract would have enough support to be approved if drafted.
“I fully expect and support the administration’s prerogative to not agree on a contract,” Deitch said.