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Posted on Thu, May 19, 2011 : 3:52 p.m.

University of Michigan Board of Regents votes to allow research assistants to unionize in rare split vote

By Kyle Feldscher

This story has been updated with the resolution approved by regents Thursday.

The University of Michigan Board of Regents voted to allow research assistants to unionize over the objections of President Mary Sue Coleman at its meeting Thursday.

It was a rare move for regents to reject Coleman’s advice as the resolution passed by a 6-2 vote, with regents Andrea Fischer Newman and Andrew Richner voting against.

Regent Laurence Deitch said he believes research assistants are employees and deserved the right to collectively bargain.

Regent Julia Darlow proposed the resolution, which read "Consistent with the University of Michigan's proud history of strong positive and mutually productive labor relations, the Board of Regents supports the rights of Graduate Student Research Assistants, whom we recognize as employees, to determine for themselves whether they choose to organize."

Some of the regents said they were caught off-guard by the resolution, which they first saw about 20 minutes before the meeting began Thursday afternoon at the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Fairlane Center.

Coleman said in her statement that the resolution would fundamentally change the relationship between faculty members and graduate students.

“Decisions about who a student studies with must remain with the two people who care most about the outcome — the student and his or her mentor,” she said.

She said graduate students are expected to make — and learn from — mistakes and that there would be far more efficient ways of running a laboratory without involving graduate students “who certainly take up quite a bit of time and energy as they are ‘learning the ropes.’”

Newman said she believed the relationship between research assistants and faculty members was a research experience and not an employee-employer relationship. She said it was troubling that regents would put themselves into the debate.

“This is not Michigan,” she said.

Kyle Feldscher covers K-12 education for He can be reached at or you can follow him on Twitter.


joe baublis

Tue, Jun 21, 2011 : 2:39 a.m.

The democrat party regents made several mistakes. First, they should have provided the other regents with advanced notice that the issue would be discussed and voted, right? Why did they sneak it into the meeting? Because the democrat party regents know that some legal issues need to be cleared before research assistants can be classified as "employees". Merely doing work, or doing research does NOT make a person an employee - students do that all day for years - and they pay for the privilege. Sometimes, people do work for others and get paid - but they are not "employees" - a good example of this are so-called "contractors". In addition the UM may only allow graduate research assistants to work "part time" and therefore they may not qualify as an "employee" - but something elsle. Second, the Democrat regents know full well that these issues cannot be resolved quickly, but they may have been forced to act by their masters - the masters who fund their political party - labor unions. If the research assistants are NOT employees and therefore cannot be represented by the graduate student employment union, then the Democrat Party Regents may be forcing the University of Michigan to violate the law in order to promote the interests of labor unions. Now - who is running the UM? This is a very serious situation and that's why this issue should have been discussed with legal counsel prior to the democrat party regents forcing a vote.


Sat, May 21, 2011 : 11:28 p.m.

@SubSubLibrarian: Since Michigan is a forced unionization state, WILL they have the chance to make that decision? Not as individuals -- the collective will make it for them.


Sat, May 21, 2011 : 4:45 a.m.

Just what ee need, more unions, and they call U of M and institution of higher learning.


Fri, May 20, 2011 : 10:05 p.m.

@Corey Lord: The point of organizing workers is so that they have a voice that that they would not have had otherwise. You make it sound as if the whole purpose is to bite the hand that feeds them, but that's not it. As an example, do you think that the hotel maid who was allegedly raped by Strauss-Kahn in NYC would still have her job if she didn't belong to a union? I doubt it. It would very convenient to just let her go.


Fri, May 20, 2011 : 9:51 p.m.

I agree with Mollie: It shouldn't be assumed that collective bargaining leads to an adversarial working relationship. Often differences are worked out in an amicable way, and the structure of the grievance process can help facilitate that.


Fri, May 20, 2011 : 5:53 p.m.

This is great news--Research Assistants are workers, and they have the right to decide for themselves if they want to be a part of a union. Now they will have the chance to make that decision.

DaLast word

Fri, May 20, 2011 : 2:46 p.m.

Frankly, I don't think any organization using tax payer money should be allowed to unionize. Especially given the history of what unions have done to this country. In NO other real life situation could you walk off your job and expect to keep it. Democrats have got this completely wrong!


Fri, May 20, 2011 : 3:10 p.m.

"given the history of what unions have done to this country" Yeah, how terrible is it that unions gave us the 40 hour work week, vacations, and five day work week. And strengthened prohibitions on child labor. Those are absolutely terrible things that have WRECKED our country! It's time to take our country back and put those 10 year olds back in the factory! Who's with me?

Corey Lord

Fri, May 20, 2011 : 1:51 p.m.

This just proves the irrelevance of unions nowadays. Just because you get paid by someone else doesn't mean you should organize against the people paying you. When I was an RA I knew I wasn't going to be paid well but that isn't the point. The point is supposed to be a learning experience not an employment experience. Once again the unionists are trying to muck something up that they have no business mucking up.


Fri, May 20, 2011 : 2:30 p.m.

The full-time salary rate for Graduate Student Research Assistants is currently $51,600; tuition and health benefits are fully covered for appointments set 25% and above. Of course, it's highly unlikely a grad student would be paid at a full-time rate, but I'm not sure why a union would be needed as the current deal is fairly sweet. Not too many people get paid close to $25/hour these days.

David Cahill

Fri, May 20, 2011 : 1:36 p.m.

Good news from the Sovereign Nation of the U of M!


Fri, May 20, 2011 : 12:44 p.m.

Great job Regents. I don't know what is going on with Coleman-- as a biochemist she must realize that research is work and that research assistants do research, right? I also think it's strange for people to assume that becoming a union member would result in adversarial relationships with advisors; few GSIs have adversarial relationships with the professors they teach with...

Left is Right

Fri, May 20, 2011 : 2:39 a.m.

Have GSRA's actually voted to be a part of GEO yet?


Fri, May 20, 2011 : 1:29 a.m.

If research assistants are not employees...than what are they? They are working, earning an income. As a doctoral student you do not have to be an RA there are other options. What is the different between an RA and a GSI? GSI has collective bargaining rights and they are grad students working under individual faculty as well.


Sat, May 21, 2011 : 4:43 a.m.

hmmm...I am an RA at a university and get paid from general funds. Some RAs do get paid from general funds. I also think there are times when a GSI might get paid from research funds. So I don't know that it is as clear cut (I am not an RA at Umich so maybe they have a different policy).


Fri, May 20, 2011 : 10:19 p.m.

No, that's actually quite different. The GSI's teach for the department, get paid by the department, and receive no degree granting credit for the experience. It's a part time job while attending school. An RA is doing research, getting paid from research funds, and earning credit towards a research degree.


Fri, May 20, 2011 : 1:13 a.m.

She said graduate students are expected to make — and learn from — mistakes and that there would be far more efficient ways of running a laboratory without involving graduate students "who certainly take up quite a bit of time and energy as they are 'learning the ropes.'" This sounds like a threat to replace graduate students with post-docs. That kind of threat could easily be found to be an unfair labor practice. President Coleman needs to be careful. They used to say the same kind of thing about Medical Housestaff unions because they liked being able to work them 120 hrs/week but the housestaff unions and some state laws have made the internships and residencies more humane as well as improving patient safety by reducing mistakes by sleep deprived housestaff.


Thu, May 19, 2011 : 10:38 p.m.

I don't know the details of why the RA's would want this but the last thing that I would have wanted as an RA was an adversarial relationship with my adviser.

Lady Audrey

Thu, May 19, 2011 : 9:53 p.m.

While I am always in favor of the right for collective bargaining, I hope the students who are organizing realize the implications of becoming employees rather than students. Be sure you don't make your relationship with mentors so burdensome that faculty choose to hire postdocs and forgo graduate students altogether. The University may grant you a degree, but it is an individual faculty member who has to agree to accept you into her or his laboratory and pay your tuition, stipend and benefits from their research grants. Many do it for the love of teaching so make sure your union protects this relationship!

John B.

Thu, May 19, 2011 : 9:27 p.m.

Wow. A rare moment of clarity from the U of M Administration. Well done, Regents.