University of Michigan graduate student research assistants don't have right to unionize, commission rules
(This story has been updated.)
University of Michigan graduate student research assistants will not be allowed to unionize after a ruling today by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission.
However, officials from the university's Graduate Employees Union said they still anticipate going ahead with a vote to potentially bring the graduate student research assistants into the union.
The university’s board of regents voted in May to allow the graduate student research assistants to unionize, against the advice of university president Mary Sue Coleman. The decision was challenged by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation in late July on behalf of Melinda Day, a graduate research assistant in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department.
The MERC decision upheld the 1981 decision that graduate student research assistants were not public employees. Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, said the decision was “a victory for the rule of law.”
“This resolution called for a public employee union election for a group of students who weren’t public employees in the first place,” he said in a statement. “The regents have no legal authority to expand the definition of public employees.”
Courtesy of the Mackinac Center for Legal Policy
Graduate student research assistants had not made an official decision on whether to join the Graduate Employees Organization, the union that represents graduate student employees at U-M. As of late July, university officials were still in negotiations with the union on how to bring graduate student research assistants into the fold.
Ruthanne Okun, director of the MERC, said there was no evidence to cause the commission to believe that circumstances have changed since the 1981 decision to not allow graduate student research assistants to unionize.
"In other words, they were saying, ‘What’s different now?’” she said. “They (union officials) can’t, by consent, confer legal status on someone.”
She said there will not be a written decision released by the MERC immediately, although commissioner might decide to release one at the next meeting.
Okun said MERC made two rulings on Monday: The commission could not intervene in the election because there was no evidence that 10 percent of graduate student research assistants agreed with Day and the Mackinac Center. The second ruling upheld the 1981 decision that graduate student research assistants are not public employees.
However, union officials didn’t see the MERC ruling as the end of the road.
Samantha Montgomery, president of the Graduate Employees Organization, said the union plans to proceed with plans to allow graduate student research assistants to vote and decide if they want to join the union. She said the union believes the first portion of MERC’s ruling would allow the election to take place regardless.
“We’re pretty encouraged by MERC actually affirming the recommendation that (graduate student research assistants) should have an election,” Montgomery said. “We’re hoping to continue to keep working with the university to reach a finalized decision.”
Montgomery said the GEO was still figuring out how graduate student research assistants would be worked into the union if the election showed they wanted to unionize, given the commission’s ruling that they are not public employees and cannot unionize.
But, she said Monday’s ruling was just another step toward expanding the GEO.
“This is not the end,” she said.
But, for the time being, it seems to be a major roadblock for the union — one that could resonate for other state universities.
Wright said the decision will have lasting effects for graduate student research assistants at other state universities. He said there will now be an even firmer stance taken by MERC after twice deciding graduate student research assistants cannot become a part of a public employee union.
“MERC is going to hold that this is a question they’ve decided before and come to the same conclusion,” Wright said. “If someone really wants to get these kids into a public sector union, they’ll have to change what the definition of a public employee is. We don’t think that’s wise because we think these students are there for an education and their payment is more akin to financial aid than an employment relationship.”
Regents received the proposed resolution to allow graduate student research assistants to unionize about 20 minutes before the May 19 meeting at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Coleman advised the regents to vote against the resolution, saying it would put the graduate student research assistants’ relationships with their mentors into jeopardy.
It was a rare move for the regents to vote against Coleman’s advice, and the resolution to allow the unionization was approved by a 6-2 vote.
Day had characterized the decision by regents to allow graduate student research assistants as a “betrayal” in a press conference announcing the challenge to their decision. She said MERC’s decision would help avoid “forced unionization.”
“This is a welcome sign that not everyone is willing to toss aside the rights of students in order to appease special interests,” Day said.
University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald said the university is waiting for the commission's written decision before making any additional moves.
"We are aware of the commission's vote today, but it's important to see the written decision before we can determine what the next steps may be," he said.
Regent Laurence Deitch, who voted in support of the resolution in May, declined to speak to AnnArbor.com when reached at his office.