When a bill preventing graduate student research assistants from unionizing passed with immediate effect in the state Legislature in early March, the debate over whether GSRAs at the University could vote to form a union finally appeared to be finished.
However, the status of GSRAs remains unclear as the bill, House Bill 4262, has become caught in a tense debate between state Republicans and Democrats over the proper use of the immediate effect provision.
An Ingham County Circuit Court judge ruled last week in favor of the House Democrats, stating that the Republicans improperly used the immediate effect — a decision which the University’s Board of Regents expressed support of on April 2 by deciding to file an amicus brief after a contentious 5-3 vote. Yesterday though, the State of Michigan Court of Appeals issued a stay on the issue, allowing the law to go back into effect until the court can take a further look into the issue.
In its decision, the court ordered the case to be expedited. Without immediate effect, the bill would take effect 90 days after the last day of the legislative session, or March of next year.
The bill in question amends the Public Employment Relations Act 336 of 1947 to explicitly identify GSRAs as students, not public employees, which disallows unionization. The Republican-controlled House passed the bill with immediate effect. Two-thirds of representatives must vote in support of immediate effect of a bill, but the House has been passing bills with a simple voice vote, and Democrats argue that their request for a roll-call vote wasn’t honored.
This gap in implementation would give the Michigan Employment Relations Commission time to rule on whether GSRAs can unionize, an issue it was scheduled to be discussed before the bill passed with immediate effect.
MERC will hold its monthly meeting today and the ability for GSRAs to unionize will be discussed. While there was no certainty that MERC would issue any ruling on the issue, Lynn Morison, an attorney for the state Bureau of Employment Relations, said MERC could theoretically vote on the issue.
Still, Morison emphasized that MERC focuses to rule according to the legislature, not against it.
“It is MERC’s role to administer the law as it is,” Morison said. “Now if the law is changed then it will be MERC’s role to administer whatever it’s changed to. As far as I know, MERC is not in any kind of dispute with any part of any other part of government. We’re just trying to do the role that has been assigned to MERC by the Legislature.”
Rackham student Liz Rodrigues, communications chair of the Graduate Employees Organization, said GSRAs had been negatively impacted when the bill was passed with immediate effect before the case was scheduled to be heard by MERC a month ago.
“The damage has already been done,” Rodrigues said. “The MERC ruling has been denied to the GSRAs so they won’t have a chance to have their status as workers recognized.”
Rodrigues said the next step for GEO is a ballot initiative in the fall to “protect collective bargaining rights.” Unions throughout the state are working to get an initiative on the ballot that would forbid right-to-work legislation.
Stephen Raiman, founder of Students Against GSRA Unionization, said he was pleased that the Ingham County Court decision against immediate effect was being reviewed, but he added that he did not believe it was appropriate for the bill to be a political battle between Republicans and Democrats.
“The court has decided to leave our bill out of the partisan fight over legislative procedure,” Raiman said. “We’re not interested in being involved and we’re upset that the union and the Democrats in the House of Representatives have chosen to involve us in this battle that we want no part of.”
State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D—Ann Arbor) said he was “disappointed” with the Republicans’ use of immediate effect. He noted that more than the required number of representatives have been calling for roll call votes on many bills that Republicans had been passing with immediate effect.
“I’m glad that the court of appeals is going to take this on,” Irwin said. “I’m glad that they’re going to the look at the details of this insidious practice that the House of Representatives has fallen into.”
Irwin added that using immediate effect for legislation is a tactic that has been used by both Republicans and Democrats in the past, but argued that does not mean its use is justified.
“If in the past, either Democrats or Republicans ignored that constitutional provision, they were wrong to do it then and they’re wrong to do it now,” Irwin said. “We’re just trying to stand up for what’s obviously right and keep the Republicans accountable for the people of the state of Michigan.”
Irwin said the use of immediate effect by the Legislature has “degenerated” over time.
“Now, in 2012 and 2011, immediate effect votes we’re just like a reflex,” Irwin said. “It’s gotten to the point now where it’s completely routine and it’s completely against the spirit and the letter of the constitution … It’s never been this bad.”
Irwin, who is in his first term as representative, added that claims concerning Democrats’ previous abuse of immediate effect are irrelevant because many members of the House were not members of the sessions that used immediate effect.
“I’ve always thought this was a really insidious and horrible way to run the Legislature,” Irwin said. “I’ve always thought they should count the votes.”