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Posted on Thu, Mar 1, 2012 : 6:33 p.m.

Irwin says Democrats were denied chance to speak on graduate research assistant bill

By Ryan J. Stanton

State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he and another Democratic lawmaker were prohibited from speaking on the floor of the state House today against a bill that would prevent graduate research assistants at public universities in Michigan from forming unions.

Rather than hearing any objections to the legislation, Irwin said the Republican-led House "railroaded through the bill" on a partisan vote of 62-45.

"When the bill came up, I walked up to the front expecting to speak, and when I got up to the front, my leadership informed me they weren't going to be taking any comments," Irwin said, adding state Rep. Vicki Barnett, D-Farmington Hills, also wanted to speak.

"Vicki was standing at the podium with a piece of paper on the podium, ready to be recognized," Irwin said. "It was clear we were lining up to talk about this issue."


Jeff Irwin

Ari Adler, press secretary for House Speaker Jase Bolger, said in order for somebody to speak, they have to be recognized, and he's not aware either lawmaker asked to be recognized. He noted Speaker Pro Tem John Walsh, R-Livonia, was in charge of the floor at the time.

Irwin said he made the request to speak through his party's leadership.

"And my understanding is that request was passed along to the Republican leadership and they said there was going to be no debate on this item," he said.

Senate Bill 971, which legally classifies graduate student research assistants as students and bars them from unionizing, is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Republican from Monroe who represents a portion of Washtenaw County.

"Senate Bill 971 is about protecting the students from additional fees or dues they would have to pay to the unions," Adler said. "And it is about protecting the integrity of the relationship between graduate research assistants and the faculty."

Irwin called that laughable.

"For them to say they're fighting on behalf of the interests of students in the state of Michigan is just hilarious after what they've done, cutting funding for universities by 15 percent," he said. "What the Republicans have done is to vastly increase tuition for our students."

Irwin called today's vote to strip graduate research assistants of their right to organize as university workers "pure hypocrisy." The GOP-backed measure comes as University of Michigan graduate student research assistants attempt to unionize.

Irwin said Republicans talk a good game about "small government," but they were happy to use the "heavy hand of state government to pursue their political goal of squashing unions."

"They imposed their ideology on the university, further compromising its independence, and they took away the rights of employees hoping to organize," said Irwin, a U-M alumnus whose district covers the university. "The University of Michigan and its graduate research assistants are currently working through a process to allow students the right to choose if they want to be in a union or not. Unfortunately, Republicans don't want them to have that right."

The House hasn't yet taken a procedural "immediate effect" vote or returned the bill to the Senate, which approved the bill last month.

But it could be headed to Gov. Rick Snyder's desk soon.

The U-M case was heard by a judge in January, and the judge was to make a recommendation to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission later this month. MERC last year reaffirmed a 1981 decision that bars research assistants from unionizing.

Irwin believes the bill thwarts that judicial process.

"It's just not appropriate," he said. "It's not what the Legislature should be doing. It's a misunderstanding of the Legislature's role in the process. There is a process for determining the answer to these types of questions and that's the MERC process."

Adler said the GOP sees it differently.

"There are three branches of government and each of them moves along at their own pace and does what they think is in the best interests of the people they're representing," he said.

Barnett issued a statement saying Republicans decided "once again that their crusade against workers' rights to form and join unions is more important than creating jobs, keeping people in their homes or ensuring every child in Michigan has access to a quality education."

Irwin pointed out the students who are being denied the right to unionize work at the university, receive paychecks and pay taxes just like any other employee. "If it looks like an employee and it quacks like an employee, it's an employee," he concluded.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Mon, Mar 5, 2012 : 4:19 a.m.

This is just blatant pandering to union votes. In private business what unions do would be criminal extortion, instead politicians like Irwin give away the right of all non union workers not to be extorted or held hostage to union demands, pay higher prices for union produced goods, accept lower productivity of union labor, impede upon the free enterprise, and prohibit non union workers from competing fairly for government contracts. Unions and politicians like Irwin are killing democracy in order to benefit the few.


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 5:24 p.m.

Ahh election year politics! way to work together there Mr. Irwin yes you tried real hard for your voters. rolling eyes This reminds me of the Home Day Care Union bill the Democrats passed a couple of years ago. Home daycare operators have to pay union dues even though they have no Union. The money is collected and sent to a Union, but they have no represenatives so whre is the money going? Where is the outrage over that piece of brilliant legislation? Glad when this election BS is over


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 4:11 p.m.

They are students at a publicly funded university. Other students and tax payers pay them. I worked in the cafeteria...never dreamed of unionizing. Unions historically bring about higher costs and lower productivity...they served a purpose more. As for the poor dems not being allowed to speak...welcome to the minority party. You guys do that ALL the time when in charge..and over bills FAR more important. Don't like it...tough! The Dems and the unions have destroyed the once great state of Michigan.


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 6:22 p.m.

So your position is, you like working for lower wages while the top brass receive bonuses? I guess paying people for what they produce is bad in your eyes. Pretty pathetic to USE somebody and their educational advancement at the whim of a professor, who has a FINANCIAL interest one way or another. If that is the case, these professors should no longer be allowed to require students to do research on their behalf. Afterall, they are only students. They are not people according to your logic. By the way, why doesnt the STATE own all these discoveries instead of the professor? They are after all EMPLOYEES of the state. Oh thats right, THEY can negotiate any contract they want.

Eugene Daneshvar

Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 3:13 p.m.

Wonderful!!! I'm so happy that we are not considered employees!!! Now University of Michigan can't claim ownership to my intellectual property!!! See you in court! Follow UM 4204 & UM 4018

Eugene Daneshvar

Sat, Mar 3, 2012 : 3:36 a.m.

"(I) signed it away?" Why would I do that? Why would I give up rights that are mine? Oh you mean in return for compensation? That would be analogous to an employment contract in the "real world" right? We are not considered employees though. Please explain your logic for why I would give up my rights.


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 7:57 p.m.

They can't claim ownership. Unless, of course, you signed it away. Wait...don't tell signed it away, didn't you? Well, when you get into the real world good luck with finding a company that funds your research and gives you the patent rights.


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 10:32 a.m.

The official policy voted by the Board of Regents was to oppose this bill but President Coleman's administration did everything but oppose the bill. If she cannot support the policy of the Board she should resign.

Angry Moderate

Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 9:36 a.m.

The rhetoric about the bill being incompatible with "small government" and outside the legislature's "role" is just weird. The proposed union recognition would come from a state law-- the Public Employee Relations Act. The Republicans want to change the state law with an amendment. The Democrats want to leave the decision up to the MERC-- a state government body also created by state law. No matter which side wins, the "heavy hand of state government" is "compromising the university's independence."

Stephen Landes

Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 3:48 a.m.

Elsewhere on is an article that says the UAW is planning a constitutional amendment to bar right to work laws in Michigan. Now just which group is using a heavy hand to impose their ideology on the people of Michigan: Republicans who want people to have the choice of joining a union or not or Democrats and their union allies who don't want the people of Michigan to have any choice whatsoever? I'll stand with having the right to do what I choose without having to join a union if I don't want to. This is not about whether or not unions can be beneficial. This is about personal freedom.


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 6:16 p.m.

@ Doug witney Really? How did Florida, Nevada and Arizona fare? The states that did the best had NOTHING to do with RTW. It had everything to do with natural resources. If you look at states that fared the best, the common theme is oil.

Doug Witney

Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 4:20 a.m.

I agree, it should be about allowing the choice (as it's also generally true that right-to-work states faired better through the stock bust and housing bust than the non-RTW states.)


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 4:13 a.m.

The difference is that all voters would have the opportunity to vote on the constitutional amendment proposal by the democrats vs the republicans railroading things thru the legislature and not even allowing Democratic Representatives to speak!

Doug Witney

Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 2:58 a.m.

Hmm, stands to reason that if the grad students can't unionize because the aren't workers, then they also cannot do research that is used by pharma and chem companies for for-profit business, under the guise of educative research. You can't have your cake and eat it too.


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 2:34 a.m.

Was Walsh elected to deny recognition to the other party?


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 1:01 a.m.

Rep. Irwin has every right to be outraged just as every citizen in this state should be outraged at these unjust actions by the republican controlled, house/senate, judiciary and governor's office. Every Branch of government is controlled by a single party hell bent on turning Michigan in to a right wing ultra conservative playground at the expense of the elderly, children, schools and everyone not making over 100,000 per year. Republicans are playing games and regardless of whether Democrats are in the minority there is a certain amount of civility that you extend to your colleagues across the aisle. To remain unrecognized by the Speaker because John Walsh decides to act like an immature adolescent and figuratively throw up the finger to the Democrats is simply uncalled for. These Republican antics are plainly offensive to watch as a citizen and a voter. The views and opinions of constituents made through their elected officials must be made part of the legislative record as an integral part of preserving the rationale for passage of a bill. By not recognizing Rep. Irwin or Rep. Barnett on this issue the Speaker Jase Bolger or Rep. John Walsh do a disservice to all voters and demonstrate an utter disrespect for the legislative process as a whole.

Mike K

Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 12:43 a.m.

As if any republican had a chance to speak about "Obamacare" or the "Dodd - Frank Act"? Welcome to partisan politics Jeff. Get used to it, it's not going to change.

Mike K

Sun, Mar 4, 2012 : 2:54 p.m.

Disco Phil - I am a registered non party affiliate, so please don't make assumptions about "my useless party". Have you ever considered why politics is so divided today more than ever?


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 12:09 p.m.

Actually, Mike K, Obama held a summit on healthcare in which he invited republicans to discuss the issue. You may recall, John McCain used the opportunity to waste time and not take the issue seriously in favor of doing some post campaigning. Not to mention, in the final roll out of the bill, many issues republicans fought for were included, despite good sense, and you all still voted against the good of the people. It's not that you were not offered a chance to participate, it's that your useless party chooses to sacrifice the good of the American people and NOT WORK when they are out of power. Conversely, Democrats continue to work when not in power, unfortunately Republicans use their time to burn through everyone's rights before they get voted out again so that Democrats are assured an insurmountable mess republicans can then blame democrats for.


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 4:17 a.m.

No, but the majority party in the House may change in Novembers election!


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 12:09 a.m.

Rep. Irwin is just upset that he is in the minority party or else he would not have a problem if the Democrats "railroaded through the bill" ! Also, the Republicans are tried of having Judges decide matters and "legislate from the bench" when the majority of voters decide issues. Nothing like using the powers that the voters give you!


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 4:15 a.m.

Powers can be taken away - the entire House is up for election in November!


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 3:17 a.m.

Another right wing lie. The LEGISLATURE passed a campaign finance law. The SCOTUS said that legislation was illegal in a case called Citizen United. I guess one mans legislating from the bench is another's INTERPRETATION of the constitution. I am all for ripping up the constitution and starting over.