The Senate Government Operations Committee Tuesday approved legislation (Senate Bill 971) to prevent the unionization of graduate student research assistants (GSRAs) at the University of Michigan. The vote was 3-2, with Republicans in support and the Democrats opposing.
The measure would also apply to all other Michigan universities. It now moves to the full Senate where it is expected to be voted on soon.
In 1981, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) determined that GSRAs were not employees, and therefore were not eligible to be unionized. Senate Bill 971 would codify that 1981 decision into law.
The reason the legislation was drafted at this time, is that MERC appears to have taken a U-turn. Last year, MERC – a three-member panel with a 2-1 Democratic majority – suddenly showed a willingness to reverse the 30-year policy and classify GSRAs as employees who are eligible to be unionized.
Evidence that MERC is leaning toward making this change, came when it froze those advocating that GSRAs are students - not employees, out of the process.
At the Senate hearing both sides of the issue were allowed to testify.
Melinda Day, a GSRA who opposes the unionization, testified that the issue was all about a union trying to get more dues.
“In October 2010, the GEO (Graduate Employees Organization - the group working to have the GSRAs unionized) released a preliminary bargaining platform that included an illegal top-down-organizing scheme,” Day told the committee. “The union was looking to have the university declare GSRAs to be part of their bargaining unit in their contract. The union abandoned that strategy and began pushing for an equally illegal card check effort during their negotiations and were told 'no.'”
“Only then, when no other option was left to them, did the union begin to push for a unionization authorization,” Day continued. “From the very beginning, the union had made it clear that the opinion of GSRAs was their last consideration. Their actions clearly indicated that their priority was not the GSRAs, but rather the $1 million per year in additional dues that we represented.”
Sen. Tupac Hunter, D-Detroit, questioned Day about implications in her testimony that the issue was partisan.
“You mention things like $1 million in dues for [union] coffers . . . so you see this as partisan?” Sen. Hunter asked.
“Everything we've seen has been party-line,” Day responded. “The 6-2 vote (in favor of unionization) by the (U of M) board of regents and the 2-1 vote by MERC.”
Jeremy Moore, a GSRA who supports the unionization, argued that enactment of Senate Bill 971 would take away the GSRA's “right” to vote on whether they wanted to be unionized.
“Although I am a student at the University of Michigan, I am also an employee there,” Moore said. “I am testifying today on my own behalf and on the behalf of the majority of research assistants – all U of M employees – who, 297 days ago, filed for election to form a union.”
“We have been prevented from having an election by the continued efforts of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose petitions to [MERC], the Court of Appeals, the State Supreme Court, and the state circuit court – all intended to take away our right to vote – have been rejected. We are now faced with the additional prospect that the state legislature may move to take away our voting rights.”
Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, the bill sponsor and chair of the committee, asked Moore how he determined that a vast majority of GSRA's favored unionization; considering that he (Richardville) had just seen a petition with about 800 names on it representing people opposed to the attempted unionization.
Moore said that the petition in question included signatures of people at U of M who aren't GSRAs.
Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer, D-East Lansing, interjected that allowing an election to take place would clarify how many GSRAs support a unionization.
“An election would determine that,” Sen. Whitmer said.
Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, R-Lowell, questioned Moore about his motivations for being at U of M in the first place.
“I'm assuming you came to U of M to work toward a degree?” Hildenbrand asked.
“Yes,” Moore responded.
“Did you come to U of M to pursue a degree as a student or for employment?” Sen. Hildenbrand asked.
Moore responded that there was no reason he couldn't have pursued both work and a degree simultaneously.
Just prior to the final vote, Committee Democrats offered an amendment to table the bill until after MERC makes a formal decision on the issue. This amendment was defeated on a straight party-line vote.