Ongoing efforts by the Graduate Employees’ Organization to obtain unionization rights for graduate student research assistants have faced a setback, following passage of a bill in the state Senate yesterday that classified GSRAs as students, not public employees with right to organize.

Introduced by state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R–Monroe), the legislation will restrict graduate students from achieving status as public employees, thereby preventing them from claiming collective bargaining rights and obtaining representation from a union. Yesterday’s vote comes just one day after it had passed through the Senate Government Operations Committee, and the bill will now move on to the state House of Representatives.

The vote also comes on the heels of an emergency meeting by the University’s Board of Regents to pass a resolution in opposition to the bill. The regents voted 6-2, along party lines, to approve the resolution and instructed Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president of governmental affairs, to garner support among state legislators to vote against the bill.

Bob McCann, communications director for Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D–East Lansing), said Senate Republicans approved the bill so quickly — it was introduced last week — to avoid interference from negative public feedback.

“They were hoping to get it through before the community had a chance to weigh in on it,” McCann said. “We like to think that as part of our democratic process, people have an appropriate amount of time to think about the issue.”

McCann said the bill was an attempt to restrict graduate students’ rights, calling its implications “disappointing.”

Rackham student Stephen Raiman, founder of Students Against GSRA Unionization, said the legislation’s passage in the House is a positive development and will benefit GSRAs if the bill makes it through the House.

“GSRA unionization is very harmful to the University and (it’s) a bad deal for GSRAs,” Raiman said. “This legislation protects us from the threat of forced unionization and will prevent (GEO) from changing the law from the way it (has) been for 30 years.”

Raiman said SAGU members will continue to work with legislators to ensure its passage in the House.

He added that the bill is not impeding GEOs ongoing efforts within the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to try to reverse a 1981 ruling that prevents GSRAs from claiming status as public employees.

At the beginning of the month, GEO presented evidence and called witnesses before an administrative law judge arguing in support of GSRA unionization. Both the University and GEO had the opportunity to make arguments and cross-examine witnesses.

“MERC is simply interpreting the statute, and it was decided in 1981 that the law considered GSRAs to not be employees,” Raiman said. “MERC is trying to change that, but really all MERC does is administer the laws that are on the books.”

Rackham student Liz Rodrigues, communications chair for GEO, disagreed with Raiman’s stance and said she believes that the bill is an attack on GSRAs’ rights and MERC’s involvement in the dispute.

“I do think it’s an attempt to interfere with the ongoing MERC process,” Rodrigues said. “In terms of its impact, I don’t know now … but we are confident that GSRAs are employees and we trust in the MERC process.”

She added that the passage of the legislation is not surprising because the issue has continued to divide politicians along party lines, noting that the Senate has a large Republican majority.

Though members of SAGU are hopeful that the bill will pass through the House, which is forbidden from voting on the bill until at least five days after its passage in the Senate, they are continuing their efforts to be heard by MERC.

Julia Stern, the administrative law judge assigned to the case, determined that SAGU and Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, who are opposed to unionization, would be allowed to call witnesses and submit evidence outside of the official hearing.

This week, Stern has heard testimony from those opposed to unionization, and today she will hear testimony from Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president of research.

Stern will consider the evidence presented to her and submit a recommendation to MERC next month. MERC ultimately has the power to determine whether or not GSRAs should be classified as public employees and have the right to vote to unionize.

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