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Mich. House poised to vote on student athlete unions

Gary Heinlein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A bill intended to prevent college and university athletes from forming labor unions, an issue that arose last spring among Northwestern University’s football players, is ready for a vote in the Michigan House.

Introduced Tuesday, the measure is being moved quickly during the year-end lame-duck session of the Legislature. It was sent to the House on a 9-4 vote of its Michigan Competitiveness Committee on Wednesday.

The sponsor, Republican Rep. Al Pscholka of Stevensville, told committee members he has been working on it for some time. His bill says public university athletes are students and not employees of the institutions.

“Like me, a majority of high school and college athletes will never go on to play sports as professionals,” said Pscholka, who described himself as a high school baseball player who tried to get an athletic scholarship as a walk-on at Western Michigan University.

The legislation is inspired by an effort by Northwestern players who argued they should have the power to bargain for compensation, medical benefits and care for injuries because their efforts on the field create millions of dollars in revenue for universities.

Two rounds of union voting were held by team members last April on the 19,000-student campus in Evanston, Illinois, but the ballot boxes were sealed and haven’t been tabulated. The full National Labor Relations Board is considering the university’s appeal of a March ruling from a regional director that the players can unionize because they are university employees.

Democrats on the House committee voted against the bill, questioning the need for it and the haste with which it’s being handled. Some argued the athletes should be allowed to consider unionization.

Since they are classified as adults, “they should have all the rights and responsibilities adults should have,” said Rep. Kate Segal, D-Battle Creek. “Why can’t we have the conversation and let students decide for themselves?”

Pscholka’s bill also would amend a 2012 law by clarifying that local public employee bargaining units don’t have to file annual audits if they’re part of a larger union that does so. The 2012 law requires unions representing public workers to file independent audits, available to the public each year.

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