In the battle over whether the University’s graduate student research assistants should be granted a vote to unionize, a new player has entered the fray.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R–Monroe) introduced a bill Wednesday to amend the Michigan Public Employment Relations Act to include a provision barring GSRAs from achieving the status of public employees — denying them the right to collective bargaining rights.

The introduction of the bill comes amid significant conflict over the issue of unionization, as members of the University community have been debating whether or not to define GSRAs as public employees, subsequently granting them the ability to vote if they want to organize. The Graduate Employees’ Organization has primarily been fighting the precedent of a 1981 Michigan Employment Relations Commission ruling that state GSRAs are not public employees.

In May, University Board of Regents voted 6-2 in a party-line, to classify GSRAs as public employees. University President Mary Sue Coleman expressed concern at the May meeting about allowing GSRAs to unionize, but has been silent on the issue since the regents voted the other way. University Provost Phil Hanlon, who testified at the hearing before the administrative law judge that ended last Monday, agreed with Coleman at the time. In October, a number of University deans also expressed opposition to granting GSRAs collective bargaining rights.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has been an outspoken advocate against GSRA unionization. His actions have included filing briefs with MERC, the Michigan Supreme Court and Michigan Circuit Courts to intervene in the matter.

In a statement to The Michigan Daily in response to the bill, the attorney general defended his involvement in the question of GSRA unionization.

“The taxpayers of Michigan definitely have a compelling interest in an issue that will disrupt the (University), which is one of our state’s crown jewels, academically and economically,” Schuette said in the statement. “We remain supportive of the (University) leadership, the folks best equipped to know, which feels that this issue will disrupt the effectiveness of the university.”

Richardville could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Though until now much of the fight between those in favor and those opposed to unionization has taken place within MERC’s framework, Stephen Raiman, founder of Students Against GSRA Unionization and a Rackham student, said he is happy that the state Senate has taken up the issue.

“It’s only now because GEO is attempting to change the law that a bill like this is necessary,” Raiman said. “So I think it’s very clear that this legislation is in response to GEO’s attempt to change the law right now.”

Liz Rodrigues, communications chair for GEO and a Rackham student, expressed discomfort with taking the issue of unionization to the state Legislature.

“I also think that this shows a lack of faith in the democratic process (since) there’s currently a process underway to determine this question, and ultimately GSRAs should have the right to vote and decide this matter for themselves,” Rodrigues said. “It’s confusing to me why (Richardville) would be trying to take away their right to vote.”

Rodrigues also said she disapproved of some of the language in the bill.

The provision that deals with GSRA unionization states that GSRAs, or those in similar positions, cannot sufficiently demonstrate they are in an “employment relationship” and are not public employees, making them ineligible for collective bargaining.”

Rodrigues said since there is currently a process underway — the deliberations before MERC and the administrative law judge — to determine the “indicia of an employment relationship,” or the employment status of GSRAs and the provision in the bill is unnecessary.

Both Raiman and Rodrigues agree that the timing of this bill must be strategic, given the attention that the GSRA issue has been receiving recently.

“The timing is puzzling and concerning,” Rodrigues said. “It seems to be interrupting an ongoing process and it also certainly couldn’t come at a worse time … it seems to be increasing tension and moving the focus away from democratic process.”

“I think it’s not a coincidence that it is coming at this time,” Raiman said.

The bill is being introduced in the wake of a hearing before an administrative law judge intended to determine whether GSRAs should be classified as public employees. The official hearing — in which only representatives from the University and GEO were allowed to testify — ended last Monday. However, on Wednesday Julia Stern, the administrative law judge, decided to grant outside parties, such as Schuette and SAGU, the right to call on witnesses in a special addition to the hearing set to begin on Tuesday.

The introduction of the bill by a Republican senator has also served to reinforce the politicization of the fight over unionization and the division of positions on unionization along party lines.

“Unfortunately, unionization does tend to be a political issue,” Raiman said. “And in fact, the only reason … this is becoming a discussion in the first place is due to politics because of the political makeup of the Board of Regents, the political makeup of MERC, so it’s kind of acting on both sides, although my organization is truly a bipartisan organization … we’re not politically motivated.”

While it remains unclear whether the bill will move forward in the Senate or be introduced in the House, both GEO and SAGU said they will be monitoring its development.

“I’m hopeful,” Raiman said. “I see it’s been introduced by the senate majority leader, so I’m hopeful that the bill will make it through the Senate and the House.”

Rodrigues said GEO does not expect to change their approach to getting a vote on unionization because of the bill, but hopes it does not pass.

“If it did (pass) I think it would certainly be a troubling development for the state of Michigan seeing as we’re trying to attract more and better researchers to this state,” Rodrigues said. “So (for) attracting graduate students, it doesn’t send a good message if they don’t respect graduate students’ work at that level.”

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