In the whistleblower trial brought by a former Graduate Student Research Assistant, Robert McGee, a Washtenaw County jury ruled last week in favor of the University. This former student and employee claimed that he was terminated because he informed his department about questionable actions performed by his supervisor. Coverage both in the Daily and on annarbor.com focused on the trial itself and didn’t explore the underlying issues in the trial, namely the largely unregulated conditions under which GSRAs are employed. But the importance of this case goes beyond one employee’s experiences. The case itself calls attention to the lack of workplace protections for GSRAs at the University.
This trial raises questions about numerous aspects of graduate employees’ working conditions: job duties, workload, supervisor responsibility, safety and, central to this case, grievance procedures. According to the news coverage, McGee claims that he was overworked, asked to perform potentially hazardous actions and terminated without prior warning. Unlike Graduate Student Instructors or Graduate Student Staff Assistants, who work under a contract negotiated between the University and the Graduate Employees’ Organization, GSRAs do not work under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. This means they lack rights, protections and access to formal grievance procedures, which are tailored to employees’ work as research assistants rather than as students.
Such employment-specific procedures are crucial for all employees, especially for those who, like graduate students, often maintain dual roles with their supervisors. Graduate employees need assurances that their work as students will not negatively affect their work as assistants and that they will not be retaliated against in cases of toxic employment situations. It’s too often that GEO hears of GSIs who are targets of supervisors’ unreasonable expectations, inflexible demands, threats, harassment and altogether unprofessional treatment. GSIs may sometimes be scared to pursue their grievances for fear that they won’t be re-hired, their department will move them to the bottom of the list for fellowship considerations or their academic reputation will be preemptively tarnished by professors who don’t sympathize with their experiences. But because GEO has fought for a strong contract, our members can be confident that the union will advocate for their rights and fight against retaliation. In his role as a GSRA, McGee didn’t have this confidence or the comfort it provides to graduate workers.
First-time GSRAs are often surprised to learn that they are not covered by GEO’s contract — we at GEO often hear concerns from GSRAs, and we must point out that under our contract, we can offer no assistance. While GSRAs used to be included in GEO’s bargaining unit, they have been excluded since the late 1970s following a Michigan Employment Relations Committee ruling that research assistants are only students, not “employees.” This contrasts with employment rules in many states, where research assistants are considered workers. For instance, New York, New Jersey and Florida have unionized research assistants, and in Wisconsin, research assistants won collective bargaining rights just this summer. For GSRAs at the University, McGee’s case shows that GSRAs sometimes work under the authority of others and not always on projects directly advancing their academic goals. GSRA work is subject to the demands of supervisors, who are often their academic advisors. They ought to have workers’ rights that go beyond the University’s basic appointment guidelines. Collective organization and bargaining could help GSRAs attain these rights.
When people ask why it’s important for graduate employees to have unions, they are often told about increases in wages, tuition waivers, wage equity and health insurance. These are some of the sexy economic gains achievable through collective bargaining. It is less sexy to talk about setting guidelines for job posting, hiring and firing procedures, paths of communication between employees and the University and parameters for formal meetings with administrators. The details of labor contracts don’t make for exciting reading, but they give employees incredibly important tools for when they need to stand up to those who would take advantage of them.
Conditions for GSRAs on campus are, like most things on campus, probably fine most of the time — when advisors have ample funds and treat their GSRAs respectfully. But the whistleblower case shows that, when GSRAs are mistreated, they are alienated from sources of assistance. They have no recourse short of expensive legal proceedings. In this case, perhaps having an internal grievance procedure would have saved the University a great deal of money in defense funds as well. Regardless of the jury’s decision, we should take seriously the need to investigate GSRAs’ working conditions and recognize their status as workers.
Lauren Squires is chair of the Grievance Committee of the Graduate Employees’ Organization.