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Should UM research assistants unionize? Michigan Attorney General weighs in

courtesy UM GEO
Members of the Graduate Employees Organization picketing on the North Campus of the University of Michigan in 2008. Many University administrators and deans maintain these research assistants are not "employees."

Some graduate student research assistants at the University of Michigan, also known as GSRAs, have wanted to unionize under the "Graduate Employee Organization" for decades.

A decision on whether attempts to unionize graduate students can move forward is coming up at a December 13 meeting of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.

The MERC is expected to vote whether to direct an administrative law judge to determine whether GSRAs are university "employees" or "students."

Many University of Michigan administrators and deans argue the GSRAs are students, not employees.

It they're determined to be employees, the 2,200 GSRAs can hold a vote on whether or not to unionize.

Now, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, on behalf of the people of Michigan, he says, has decided to jump into this administrative debate.

From David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press:

Allowing University of Michigan graduate student research assistants to unionize would “significantly damage” U-M and harm all Michigan residents, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a brief filed this week to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. Schuette wants MERC to uphold a 1981 ruling that the GSRAs are students, not employees, and shouldn’t be allowed to form a union when the commission decides on the issue later this month.

The Michigan Attorney General's petition at this stage of an administrative process is "extremely rare or may be unprecedented," according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a group that describes itself as a "free market" policy organization.

The Mackinac Center "welcomes" Schuette's involvement.

Schuette is petitioning on behalf of all the people of Michigan. His position is similar to the position the Mackinac Center has taken in opposition of unionization, whose legal foundation is representing 370 U of M graduate students opposed to unionization.

From Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation:

"The Attorney General's participation demonstrates the critical importance of the issue and highlights the irregularities that have occurred at the U-M Board of Regents and proceedings of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission."

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation says on its website that the U of M Board of Regents voted to support unionization despite objections from U of M President Mary Sue Coleman. They also call a 1981 decision by the MERC a "precedent" and that "the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents cannot unilaterally change the laws of this state."

David Jesse of the Detroit Free Press writes:

Schuette’s involvement continues a pattern of intervening in political and social-issue cases. For example, he has filed a brief supporting Julea Ward, a former Eastern Michigan University graduate counseling student who claims she was kicked out of the program when she sought to refer a gay client to another counselor, saying her religious beliefs wouldn’t allow her to counsel a gay person.

In his brief, Schuette argued his intervention is proper when "significant matters of state interest and public policy are involved."

Graduate research assistants at other Michigan universities will pay close attention to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission's ruling on December 13. It could help determine whether they have a right to unionize as well.

Mark Brush was Michigan Radio’s Digital Media Director. He succumbed to a year-long battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, in March 2018. He was 49 years old.
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