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Posted on Wed, Feb 22, 2012 : 2:59 p.m.

U-M research assistants seeking union election face new roadblock in State Legislature

By Kellie Woodhouse

The quest for unionization might become a lot more complicated for the group of University of Michigan Graduate Student Research Assistants that has been battling college administrators and state officials for the right to form a union.

The Michigan Senate Wednesday passed SB 971, a bill that defines GSRAs as students and not employees and threatens to thwart attempts to form a union.

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People chant in support of unionization during a January press conference.

The question of whether GSRAs should be considered students or employees is central to the conflict over whether the research assistants can legally hold a union election.

Many university administrators, deans and faculty —including U-M President Mary Sue Coleman— have argued publicly that GSRAs attend U-M to learn and study under their advisers and are not employees. They say that treating GSRAs as employees would be damaging to U-M's academic mission.

The U-M Board of Regents, however, voted in May to allow GSRAs the right to vote on forming a union and urged the university to promote "mutually productive labor relations."

Since then, a group of GSRAs has been working to overturn a 1981 ruling by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission that defines GSRAs as students. MERC is in the midst of an administrative hearing that collects testimony from GSRAs and U-M administrators. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has publicly stated that GSRAs should not be able to hold a union election. He filed a motion to intervene in the MERC hearing but was denied.

The MERC decision, however, may be made irrelevant by SB 971. Introduced Thursday, the bill rapidly moved through the committee process and passed through the senate on a party line vote Wednesday. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) proposed the bill.

"This whole thing has taken all of us by surprise," said Jeremy Moore, an electrical engineering and computer science GSRA and a member of the Graduate Student Employees Organization, a group that advocates on behalf of GSRAs seeking unionization.

"It's wrong for the Legislature to try to just pass a law to circumvent this whole process," he continued. "A lot of people here are frustrated because we’ve been working on this for a long time and we followed all the proper procedures ... and to be stopped in this way is just not fair."

During an emergency meeting held Tuesday the Board of Regents agreed. In a 6-2 vote the board vowed to "to take all available action in opposition" of the bill.

Victor DiRita, a U-M microbiology professor and associate dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies, has been an outspoken opponent of a GSRA union election.

"It brings a lot of common sense back to the educational system," he said of the bill.

"The whole thing is predicated on a definition the regents have provided outside (the recommendation) of academics and people who actually educate students," DiRita continued. "This puts an end to that definition."

Kellie Woodhouse covers higher education for Reach her at or 734-623-4602 and follow her on twitter.


Morgan Parker

Sat, Feb 25, 2012 : 4:38 p.m.

I am a current University of Michigan grad student, a former GSRA. I oppose the unionization of GSRAs and the need for an election. Why? Because this entire issue not really about GSRAs at all. Have you wondered how this hullabaloo started in the first place? It is because the union representing Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs), the GEO, is making a play to collect more dues and increase their power. Of the three people entering my office wanting us to sign election cards for the unionization, two were employees of the GEO, not GSRAs. The third was a GSI, again not a GSRA. The people in the photo included in the article? Probably not GSRAs. The people arguing for unionization in front of MERC? The GEO, not GSRAs. The people fighting against unionization in front of MERC, the Mackinac Legal Fund, also not GSRAs. The moral of the story? The people and money fighting over this issue are not the ones to suffer the consequences. If GSRAs want to unionize, then let them form their own union, not the GEO, and represent themselves. We are graduate students at an elite university, we have the intelligence and capability to both think and fight for ourselves. We do not need others, either the GEO or the Mackinac Legal Fund, to fight on our behalf. GSRA - graduate student research assistant. See that second word, it is student. We take classes and we do research. We are here for our own personal edification, not for a job. We are no different than other graduate students except that the 50k+ a year it takes to support us comes from grants rather than scholarships or our parents' pockets. If we are unhappy with our adviser, we can select a new one. The University needs us to be happy and healthy to do good work. They are not the enemy. If there is a legitimate human resources issue, there is already a fair processes for resolution. We don't need to pay hundreds of dollars a year to the GEO to think for us. We can think for ourselves.

Ryan Morton

Sat, Feb 25, 2012 : 2:07 p.m.

I think the GSRA unionization issue comes down to: 1) whether GSRAs are employees or students and 2) compulsory unionization. Graduate students are torn on this issue and it appears to come down to attitude and personal circumstances. Many GSRAs decided on attending UM to work with a particular advisor on a known problem/project, gain knowledge and skills, and prepare themselves for a research career. They are OK working long hours even though they're officially paid to work 20hrs / week. These individuals seem to think of themselves as students that must occasionally deal with the campus bureaucracy in order to make the whole system work. Other GSRAs see that they are paid on grants (from the government, private parties, and companies) and ask the question: are those grants paying for "work" to be done or students to "learn"? Even though the the student came to UM to learn, if they are paid for "work" then they seem to be employees. Without conclusion on whether GSRAs are even employees, let us now look at the main criticism of the unionization (if we assume GSRAs are employees). Collective bargaining would put all GSRAs into compulsory unionization situation. Either the union bargains on behalf of all GSRAs or they do not bargain for any. So if 49% of the GSRAs vote against unionization and 51% vote for it, then everyone now would have to pay $ per month to the union; a service that only the backers of unionization value. If you think a union is useful you're OK paying money to it, however, for those against unionization the concept of compulsory unionization is repulsive. Michigan is obviously a union-support state, but not everyone gets the need or point of unions in this day and age (for good or bad, there is no consensus on the positive/negative effects of unions). Thus, not everyone agrees that "GSRAs should have the right to decide the issue on their own" (Clara) and even if they do have this right is it an

Don B. Arfkahk

Sat, Feb 25, 2012 : 12:02 a.m.

Graduate student research assistants do not take classes - they only work 80 hour weeks in the lab. Obviously, working this does not make them employees.

Stephen Landes

Fri, Feb 24, 2012 : 5:41 p.m.

Who are the "people" chanting in support of unionization in the photo? Are they GSRAs? Union organizers, just a bunch of "people" walking across campus and inadvertently ensnared into chanting? The failure to identify them leads to an implication that they are GSRAs who want to be union members (and dues payers). SB971 codifies the previous MERC decisions that GSRAs are not and never have been considered employees of the University.


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 8:17 p.m.

What I do not agree-with, is that this is any business of our state legislators. ...So-much for 'less government.'


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 5:33 p.m.

It is at times like this when I wish I were still a grad student - so I could tell these dilettantes exactly how stupid the notion of unionizing is.

Clara Bosak-Schroeder

Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 1:48 p.m.

The people who "actually educate students" are also the ones who employ them and, under the current system, can exploit them. The union protections I have as a GSI facilitate the learning process by increasing the trust I feel with faculty. They are very decent human beings, but I am thankful that my salary and healthcare and vacation benefits don't depend on that fact. In any case, maybe it's just enough to say this: GSRAs should have the right to decide the issue on their own, in a fair election free from intimidation or interference.

Amy Pistone

Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 5:34 a.m.

GSRAs should have the option to vote on unionization, and if it's not something they want, no one is forcing them to unionize. It's unconscionable how many obstacles have been placed in the way of this vote. GSRAs are a large, diverse group of students at the University, and they work and contribute on so many fronts. They should be given the right to vote on and determine their own future!

Stephen Landes

Fri, Feb 24, 2012 : 5:43 p.m.

Wrong. If a majority of the GSRAs vote for the union then ALL GSRAs will be forced to join the union. This is not an opt-in or opt-out situation. Unions are fine, but no one should be required to join a union to work in a particular place or job.


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 4:42 a.m.

Got to love partisan republicans imposing their right to work laws on public universities over the objections of the Regents, constitutionally enabled to run their universities without legislative meddling.


Thu, Feb 23, 2012 : 2:45 a.m.

Got to love liberals.

Angry Moderate

Wed, Feb 22, 2012 : 11:27 p.m.

Passing a bill through the legislature is circumventing the process? I guess they don't watch Schoolhouse Rock in grad school. Somebody should tell this self-entitled student that working on something "for a long time" doesn't mean everyone else's elected representatives have to give it to you.


Wed, Feb 22, 2012 : 9:07 p.m.

There is something going on that goes far beyond the question of uniionization. Who sets the policy of the University of Michigan? Is it the Board of Regents or President Coleman? The Regents adopted a resolution supporting the right of GSRA's to unionize if a majority wish to do so. That should be the official policy of the University but President Coleman and her lieutenants are testifying before the legislature opposing unionization. The University President is a Chief Executive, which means that she is supposed to execute the policy that is set by the Board. If she cannot support the policy set by the Board she should resign. If she is unwilling to support the policy set by the Board, she should be fired. The fact that this has not happened shows that the Board wants it both ways. The majority of the Board is made up of Democrats who have been sponsored by specific unions. They had to publicly support the rights of the students to unionize or alienate their union supporters but they are allowing President Coleman to pubicly oppose the issue. The Board is being dishonest about their true policy on this issue.


Wed, Feb 22, 2012 : 9:19 p.m.

best summary of the situation i have read yet. You're spot on with this comment.