Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation yesterday that bans unionization by graduate student research assistants, halting the year-long fight that sharply divided campus over how GSRAs should be legally classified.
The bill, which became effective immediately, states GSRAs cannot be considered public employees and are ineligible for collective bargaining rights. The legislation was introduced by state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R–Monroe) about a month ago and was recently passed in the state Senate and House of Representatives before reaching Snyder’s desk.
Snyder signed the bill into law the same day that the Michigan Employment Relations Commission was set to meet and potentially make a decision about whether or not GSRAs are considered public employees.
Snyder spokesman Ken Silfven said the law is important to distinguish the difference between students and employees.
“It’s important to protect the relationship between students and teachers,” Silfven said. “I think, you know, having grad student research assistants unionize could complicate that relationship … You know, students need to be free to continue learning and doing their valuable research.”
Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D–East Lansing) said she was frustrated with the way the Republicans in the legislature passed the legislation.
“I’m very disappointed that the Governor signed it into law,” Whitmer said. “This is about working students’ rights to collectively bargain, and what we’ve seen out of the Republicans over the last 14 months is if you can’t win by the rules that are on the books, then you just change the rules. It comes at the cost of these working students.”
Richardville did not return multiple phone calls requesting comment.
Though the bill took immediate effect, MERC proceeded with yesterday’s meeting, according to Ruthanne Okun, director of the Michigan Bureau of Employment Relations. Okun said MERC will decide at its next meeting or during a special meeting whether or not the body has jurisdiction over the GSRA issue now that the law has barred GSRAs from unionizing.
Rackham student Liz Rodrigues, communications chair for the Graduate Employees’ Orgnanization, said the new law effectively eliminates MERC’s role in changing the status of GSRAs from students to employees.
“As of right now, this bill means that the GSRA campaign is ending in a legal attack on GSRAs’ right to vote, rather than in a fair election,” Rodrigues said. “It does mean that the campaign is over.”
Rackham student Stephen Raiman, founder of Students Against GSRA Unionization, said he is extremely pleased with the new law.
“We feel that we can relax a little bit and we’re comfortable with the knowledge that this union won’t be trying to absorb us, that we can go on with the process of being students,” Raiman said. “We’re very pleased that the governor has recognized that GSRAs are students and should not be subject to these forced unionization attempts.”
Though the bill pertains just to GSRAs, the ramifications of the bill could extend beyond just them, and many see the end of this battle as the beginning of a bigger discussion about collective bargaining rights in the state.
Jeff Hauser, political media lead for the AFL-CIO, said Michigan could see more bills emerge from the legislature attempting to limit the power of unions.
“This totally is a national effort, and it may seem counterintuitive that what’s happening at the University of Michigan (is national, but it’s really not),” Hauser said. “ … I’m not saying what’s happening at the University of Michigan is the focal point of their efforts, but it’s a part of their game plan.”
Hauser said he has heard talk of legislators in the state attempting to further limit collective bargaining rights and a number of bills have already been introduced. He said the reason there hasn’t been a complete overhaul of unionization rights in the state thus far is that that such attempts are very unpopular, so Snyder has tried to distance himself from such wide scale efforts.
Silfven agreed that labor issues have not been a priority for the governor.
“Every bill has to be looked at on its own merit, but I think all in all, the governor has been very consistent in saying that collective bargaining has worked well in Michigan and dealing with those issues,” Silfven said. “It’s not something that’s on his agenda.”
Nevertheless, some believe Michigan could face the drawn out battles over collective bargaining rights that other Midwestern states, such as Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, have faced in the past year and a half.
“I think that that’s a very legitimate concern,” Whitmer said. “As we watch what happens with (Wisconsin Gov.) Scott Walker or what happens with the worker protection ballot language. I’m hopeful a year from now Michigan gives our workers the ability to collectively bargain, but it could be dramatically different, too.”
Hauser said it would make sense for the issue of workers’ rights to become prominent in Michigan, an important state for the labor movement, especially at a time when conservatives have control over the Legislature.
“These are states in which the opportunity for right-wingers to push through unpopular legislation (is small),” Hauser said. “It’s a narrow window and they are acting with great swiftness to implement their agenda.”
There is already evidence of a fight gearing up over labor laws in the state. GEO, along with a number of other unions in Michigan, have launched a campaign to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would, among other things, ensure that Michigan does not become a ‘right to work’ state — meaning employees can choose not to pay union dues.
“We’re really upset that the campaign is ending that way,” Rodrigues said. “But we see it as good timing in the sense that we’re now able to transition into this bigger fight to protect collective bargaining rights, because so far it’s just been attacks from groups that are against workers’ rights … we’re going on the offensive, which is nice.”
Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) said Michigan has already seen the introduction of a number of anti-union bills.
“That’s not surprising,” Irwin said. “The Republicans made it clear that they were going to go after who they saw as political enemies, and unions usually hand their support to Democrats.”
Hauser said if Michigan is anything like other conservative state legislatures, it could see the introduction of even more anti-labor legislation.
“I think that there’s a general blueprint that gets tailored distinctly to different states to try to erode collective bargaining and to erode workers standing together rather than workers standing one by one,” he said.
Whether or not a showdown on labor rights in the state ensues, it is clear there are deep divisions on the GSRA issue alone as expressed by state officials.
“It’s disheartening to see supposedly small government Republicans come in and usurp a constitutionally autonomous university and its students and the judicial process,” Whitmer said. “ … The legislators substituted their own supposed wisdom for everyone else’s judgment and it flies in the face of all their arguments about having smaller government and I think it’s done a disservice to a lot of different people on this issue and a lot of others.”
Silfven said this bill isn’t about unions at all, but rather defining the responsibilities of student researchers.
“This is really a pro-education bill,” he said. “It’s not anti anything, it’s very pro-education. Nothing should stand in the way of these students continuing their educations and making outstanding contributions in research to the University. That’s really the goal.”