July 2, 2014 at 1:00 am


Finally, a win for UM lab assistants

It's taken three years for the state employment commission to reaffirm its decision from 30 years ago

The fight to prevent the unionization of graduate student research assistants at the University of Michigan appears to have subsided for now, thanks to a ruling last week from the Michigan Employment Relations Commission. It took nearly three years to get to this point, but the commission made the right call — upholding a similar decision from more than 30 years ago.

The decision, then and now, stated that research assistants are students, not employees, and therefore not subject to unionization and Michigan’s Public Employment Relations Act.

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation has represented the interests of nearly 400 lab assistants who resisted unionization since they initially filed suit several years ago.

“We’re pleased that MERC recognized that our clients are students and not employees,” said Patrick Wright, vice president for legal affairs at the Legal Foundation, in a statement. “They were simply trying to further their education.”

On Thursday, the employment commission unanimously decided that graduate student research assistants at Michigan’s public universities are not public employees and can’t be forced to join a public-sector union.

Even though that’s the same conclusion the commission came to in 1981, it changed course in 2011 after union-friendly members of the UM Board of Regents adopted a resolution recognizing the graduate student research assistants as public employees — brushing off the commission’s previous findings.

With the regents’ support, a union group on campus simultaneously sought to organize the research assistants.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, already represents graduate student instructors and staff assistants. But adding the lab assistants would have significantly boosted its numbers and coffers.

A convoluted legal and legislative battle ensued.

Unionization supporters ignored the advice of UM President Mary Sue Coleman and many university deans who made it clear they opposed treating research assistants as employees, since joining the union could interfere in the relationships between assistants and faculty advisers, in addition to their research.

After the regents got involved in early 2011, the employment commission originally ruled in August 2011 as it did last week. But in December of that year, after additional pressure, it reversed that decision.

As a result of the back and forth from MERC, the Legislature stepped in, and Gov. Rick Snyder in 2012 signed into law an amendment to state employment law clarifying that lab assistants were not university employees. Earlier this year, however, a federal district judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional because of a technicality. That ruling is under appeal.

Although this latest decision from the employment commission is positive, given its record and changing political winds, the Legislature should start fresh with a bill that would clearly define lab assistants as students and settle the matter for good.