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.

Beltway ConfidentialUS

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

The Medical Examiner's Office van on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
San Francisco’s 2020 overdose deaths soar 59 percent to 699

Fatal drug overdoses surged by nearly 59 percent in San Francisco last… Continue reading

Police Commissioner John Hamasaki questions Chief Bill Scott at City Hall on Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFPD should probe whether officers joined Capitol raid, commissioners say

Chief unaware of any members participating in insurrection

Homeless people's tents can be seen on Golden Gate Avenue in the Tenderloin on Wednesday afternoon, Dec. 16, 2020. (Photo by Ekevara Kitpowsong/S.F. Examiner)
Statewide business tax could bring new funds to combat homelessness

San Francisco could get more than $100 million a year for housing, rental assistance, shelter beds

The Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco (a mural by artist Jamie Treacy is pictued) has a lineup of free online programming including activities for youngsters scheduled for Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Jan. 18. (Courtesy Demetri Broxton/Museum of the African Diaspora)
Stanford, Museum of the African Diaspora host MLK Day activities

Online offerings include films, music, discussion

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi presides the US House of Representatives vote on the impeachment of US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol, January 13, 2021, in Washington, DC. - The Democrat-controlled US House of Representatives on January 13 opened debate on a historic second impeachment of President Donald Trump over his supporters' attack of the Capitol that left five dead. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
House votes 232-197 to impeach Trump a second time

Focus shifts to Senate, where McConnell has signaled he may not stand by president

Most Read