Lawsuit to block unionization of Michigan grad students as 'public employees'

In Michigan, the unions are thrashing about for a lifeline, and the University of Michigan Regents tried to throw them one. The Regents voted in May, 6-2, to support unionization of their graduate student research assistants. Today, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is filing a motion before the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC), on behalf of graduate student Melinda Day, to block the process, which they claim is illegal.

The Regents' resolution from May stated:

“Resolved, that consistent with the University of Michigan’s proud history of strong, positive, and mutually productive labor relations, the Board of Regents supports the rights of University Graduate Student Research Assistants, whom we recognize as employees, to determine for themselves whether they choose to organize.”

While the Regents phrase the issue as a matter of acknowledging grad students' rights, the claim that these students are public employees is dubious. In 1981, the MERC ruled that University of Michigan graduate research assistants did not qualify as public employees and therefore could not be unionized into the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), the same organization leading the unionization effort today.

“This is not an open question,” said Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation. “MERC has already rejected unionization for these students. In fact, MERC delivered this ruling years ago in a case involving the exact same union, the exact same university and the exact same group of graduate students, and it made its decision after 19 days of hearings, thousands of pages of exhibits and hundreds of pages of legal briefs . . . The regents cannot unilaterally rewrite the laws of this state.”

GEO filed a new petition to unionize the students in April, and so far, MERC has not declined the petition.

But the University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman shares the Mackinac Center’s distaste for the measure. Speaking to the Regents, Coleman explained her opposition, saying, “I do not see research assistants as our employees but as our students . . . When I was a graduate student, I did not see myself as working for the university and I did not see my faculty mentor as my employer. Far from it.”

If the GEO succeeds in unionizing the graduate students, the plaintiff, Day, worries that the negotiated public employee contract terms could interfere with her research schedule, which often requires long work hours. Also, union dues could be burdensome for graduate students living on research grants and university stipends.

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation estimates that the drive to unionize graduate students would at least double GEO membership and annual union dues paid to GEO — which is probably the real impetus behind this development.

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