Graduate student research assistants at the University of Michigan who do not want to belong to a union have some high-profile allies who have kept a low profile.
The Mackinac Center has obtained a confidential letter to U of M Provost Philip Hanlon expressing a “deep and collective concern about the potential negative impacts that would result from the unionization of the University’s graduate student research assistants.”
The letter was signed by 18 Deans of the university’s 19 schools and colleges. Also signing was the University Librarian and Dean of Libraries. The lone holdout was Christopher Kendall, Dean of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
Kendall, however, told the Mackinac Center in an email that he was on board as well:
"The School of Music, Theatre and Dance strongly supported the position articulated in the deans' letter. We didn't sign it simply because the role of our two GSRAs doesn't correspond precisely with the description in the letter. Again, however, the School was strongly in accord with the principles expressed by the deans."
The union, known as the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO), was founded at U of M in 1970, which, according to its website, makes the GEO ”one of the oldest graduate employee unions in the United States.” The GEO currently represents graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants, but earlier this year made moves to expand its membership at the Ann Arbor campus by including graduate student research assistants.
The GEO petitioned the Michigan Employment Relations Commission in April to be allowed to move forward with its unionization attempt. The following month, the U of M Regents voted 6-2 to support the GEO’s effort, saying in a June 2011 statement, “We took this action because GSRAs are employees as well as students.”
This directly contradicted university President Mary Sue Coleman, who told the Regents in May: “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.”
Coleman went on to suggest the university’s provost agreed with her: “I know I speak for Provost Hanlon as well when I express my concern about characterizing our research assistants as University employees.”
While Coleman’s comments were publicly stated, the similar sentiments expressed the deans of 18 schools and colleges* were not. In a letter dated June 24, 2011, and labeled “Confidential – By Hand Delivery,” the deans told Provost Hanlon that they respect the Regents’ decision, however, “We believe that such a union would put at risk the excellence of our university and the success of our graduate student research assistants.” Further remarks in the letter explain their position:
“We note that graduate student research assistants are not unionized at the peer institutions against whom the University competes for faculty and graduate students …We worry that a GSRA union would make Michigan an outlier when the best and brightest graduate students compare research opportunities, and when we work to recruit excellent research faculty. A vast majority of the faculty members with whom we have spoken do not support GSRA unionization because of the potential negative impact on their one-on-one relationships with students and the University’s competitive position among its peers.”
For now the deans, along with Coleman and Hanlon, may breathe a little easier.
In response to a motion filed by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation in July on behalf of Melinda Day, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission stood by its 1981 decision that these GSRAs are not public employees who can be unionized. What this means is MERC essentially refused to grant the public-sector GEO permission to organize this group of graduate students.
This is not to say the matter is entirely finished.
"There is still time to appeal the MERC decision and the union and the Regents may be concocting another legally dubious plan to work around the 1981 decision," said MCLF Director Patrick Wright. "Regardless, students working towards their dissertations are not 'public employees' and cannot be forced into a government employees union.”
*Editor’s note: Two of the deans’ letter signatories no longer occupy the positions held at the time of this letter. They are Robert Dolan, former Business School Dean and Rosina Bierbaum, former Dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment.