While many members of the University community are familiar with the work of graduate student instructors — who interact with undergraduates while standing in front of classrooms, holding office hours and grading assignments — the work of graduate student research assistants is less known. There are at least 2,000 GSRAs on the University’s Ann Arbor campus, and their work is the engine behind the research produced in each segment of campus.

Both GSIs and GSRAs do important work for the University, yet they currently have very different rights. GSIs work under a contract which provides protection for their positions as workers. GSRAs don’t have these same protections, and many are surprised to learn that they aren’t covered by the Graduate Employees’ Organization contract. With a union, the University has a legal obligation to negotiate changes in salaries, benefits and other working conditions. Without a union, benefits could be changed or taken away without notice. Additionally, GSRAs don’t have the right to a contract-governed internal grievance procedure with a neutral arbitrator, and they don’t have a union to advocate on behalf of the employee.

GSRAs were included in GEO’s bargaining unit when the union was initially recognized. However, a legal decision made in 1981, prompted by a challenge by the University, recognized GSIs and graduate student staff assistants as employees but not GSRAs. But this ruling contrasts with employment rules in other states where research assistants are considered workers. The University is a premier research institution, research is an important function of its mission and GSRA work enables its groundbreaking research. There are research assistants who clean data sets, edit tables, evaluate programs and administer experiments that are ancillary to their own research interests but benefit both their supervisors and the University. As workers, GSRAs have the right to determine the conditions of their employment.

The campaign to achieve bargaining rights for GSRAs — should they elect to have them — began out of the concerns of research assistants, and research assistants are active members in orchestrating it. When the campaign is identified as a “GEO” campaign, this doesn’t just refer to the graduate instructors and staff assistants who are covered by GEO’s contract. GSRAs have joined together as associate members of GEO to ask the University to recognize the right of GSRAs to collectively bargain and to “accrete” GSRAs into the GEO bargaining unit if a majority of GSRAs sign membership cards requesting representation. “Accretion” means that research assistants will be represented by GEO, but it does not mean that provisions of the current GEO contract will automatically apply to research assistants. Following a successful certification of the GSRA membership cards, GEO — with the full input of GSRAs — would negotiate with the administration over which provisions of the current contract might apply to GSRAs and would also negotiate over GSRA-specific issues not currently addressed in the contract.

Some concerns have been raised about how GEO, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, would be a good fit for research assistants. GEO already represents one group of non-teaching employees: graduate student staff assistants. The GEO contract is clearly laid out to address the needs of GSIs and GSSAs. Adding GSRAs would require additional considerations that could be addressed with negotiations between research assistants and the University. The AFT, which includes chapters in non-teaching professions such as nursing and has other bargaining units including research assistants, supports GEO — but ultimately it’s GEO members who determine the conditions of their work with the University.

Campaign staff workers and volunteers from GEO have had hundreds of conversations with GSRAs across departments. Organizers have been asking that research assistants sign a representation card only if they are very supportive of the campaign and feel informed enough to make a decision. As of now, more than 70 percent of research assistants who have been informed about the campaign have chosen to sign cards indicating that they are in favor of bringing GSRAs into the GEO bargaining unit. It’s clear that there’s great support for this effort.

GEO simply asks that the University recognize that graduate research assistants are workers. As workers, they have the right to freely choose whether or not to have union representation through GEO, without interference from the administration. As a democratic and open organization, we urge anyone with questions about the campaign, union organizing or GSRA representation to contact GEO — and, if you support these rights for GSRAs, ask the University to recognize them.

Alix Gould-Werth is a GSRA. Kathryn Frank is a GSI. Rob Gillezeau is a GSRA, and is the president of GEO. Chelsea Del Rio is a GSI, and is GEO’s interim Vice President.

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