GEO members do valuable work, but shouldn't be allowed to unionize. (Courtesy: U-M GEO Facebook page)
The battle over unionizing graduate research assistants at the University of Michigan is reignited after a federal judge overturned a clumsy state law that classified research aides as students. The intent was to block an organizing drive of lab assistants, who pay tuition and get college credit for their work.
Lawmakers tried to prevent this labor overreach by passing legislation in 2012 clarifying the students’ status. But Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Mark A. Goldsmith struck down the statute. It had served to block a labor-friendly Michigan Employment Relations Commission from going forward with an administrative hearing that likely would have determined graduate student researchers should be recognized as public employees with collective bargaining rights.
The judge said the law violated the Michigan Constitution because its purpose changed as it moved through the Legislature. A bill that started out dealing with emergency managers ended in one that addressed collective bargaining at universities. Lawmakers made this choice for procedural reasons that enabled the bill to have immediate effect.
Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office is reviewing the ruling and considering how to proceed. Schuette is likely to appeal, but the Legislature could and should go back and do its work the right way by passing a clean bill defining only the status of research assistants.
Attempts to organize these students go back three decades in Michigan. In the early 1980s, when members of the group tried to unionize, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission ruled the students were not public employees.
In 2011, the issue popped up again as U-M’s Democratic controlled Board of Regents adopted a resolution recognizing the graduate student research assistants as public employees—despite the commission’s findings.
With the regents’ support, a campus union sought to organize the research assistants. About 2,000 students work for U-M professors and receive a stipend for their efforts. The Graduate Employees’ Organization, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, already represents graduate student instructors and staff assistants.
More than 400 research assistants oppose the unionization attempt, arguing that being in a union could interfere with their research and relationship with their supervising professors. U-M President Mary Sue Coleman opposed their unionization for similar reasons, along with the provost, most of the deans and many faculty members.
Still, the regents spent more than $1 million on legal fees to support the union’s lawsuit challenging the law. The judge’s ruling sends the issue back to the employment relations commission. Today, all three members are appointees of Gov. Rick Snyder, so it’s unlikely the union will prevail.
But this battle should not be fought with each change of administration. The Legislature should put it to rest with a law that meets the Constitutional test.