Legislation designed to prevent the unionization of graduate student research assistants at the University of Michigan is one step closer to becoming law.
On Thursday, the Michigan House passed Senate Bill 971 by a party-line vote of 62-45, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposing it. Senate Bill 971 moved through the legislative process quickly. It zipped through the Senate and the House in just eight days.
Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign the bill when it reaches his desk.
The issue is significant for student researchers and it will codify into law a 1981 decision by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission that determined that the GSRAs were not employees, and therefore were not eligible to be unionized.
It is believed the legislation was necessary because MERC (a three-member panel with a 2-1 Democratic majority) seemed poised to reverse the 1981 decision. MERC recently kept those advocating that GSRAs are students — not employees — out of the process.
On Wednesday, U of M professor Fawwaz Ulaby told the House Government Operations Committee that he strongly opposed the Democrat-dominated U of M Board of Regents on the question of the GSRAs being considered employees.
"The whole concept of unionizing students is ludicrous,” Ulaby said. “The work they perform cannot be distinguished from working toward their dissertations.”
Rep. Vicki Barnett, D-Farmington Hills, asked Ulaby what harm would be caused if the GSRAs were classified as employees.
“There's the potential adversarial relationship of employer to employees that would be created between the students and those of us who mentor them,” Ulaby said.
Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, the sponsor of Senate Bill 971, argued that the issue was straight forward.
“I don't think anyone would question that people go to grad school as students first and employees second,” Richardville said.
Melinda Day, a GSRA who opposes the unionization, argued that the real motive behind the unionization attempt is the $1 million in union dues that the American Federation of Teachers would collect annually if the GSRA's became AFT members.
“From the very beginning, the union had made it clear that the opinion of GSRAs was their last consideration,” Day said. “Their actions clearly indicated that their priority was not the GSRAs, but rather the million dollars per year in additional dues that we represented.”
Day accused MERC of colluding with the Democratic-dominated U of M Board of Regents in an attempt to make the GSRA unionization happen.
Barnett took issue with Day's use of the word “collusion.”
“I'd be very careful about the ramifications of what you're saying in that portion of your presentation,” Barnett said to Day. “If you have evidence of collusion you should report it to the authorities.”
Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, came to Day's defense by reading an online definition of “collusion,” which said the word does not necessarily describe illegal activity.
“I'm not going to sit here and let you tell her that,” McMillin told Barnett, after reading the definition aloud.
Jeremy Moore, a GSRA who supports the unionization, argued that Senate Bill 971 and those who supported it would rob he and other GSRAs of their “right” to vote on joining the union.
“Why would the legislature want to take away our right to vote?” Moore said.
Cynthia H. Wilbanks, U of M's vice president for government relations, represented the position taken by of the majority Democrats on the Board of Regents, which is that the GSRAs should be considered employees. That stance is the opposite of the position taken by U of M President Mary Sue Coleman.
Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, asked Wilbanks what the union would have to negotiate, considering that the GSRAs are paid through grants and government programs.
"The topics of negotiation would be between the university and the bargaining unit," Wilbanks said.
Nesbitt asked Wilbanks if regular U of M undergraduate students would be the next to qualify as employees if the GSRAs ended up getting that classification.
“I do not believe that would be the case,” Wilbanks responded.
Then Nesbitt asked Wilbanks what had changed over the past 30 years to justify reconsidering the 1981 MERC determination that GSRAs are students.
Wilbanks never gave a clear answer to this question.