A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

State Agency Rules That Graduate Student Research Assistants Not Eligible For Unionization

Ruling supports state law signed in 2012 that said GSRAs not public employees

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Houshmand, a graduate student research assistant at the University of Michigan, was one of 2,200 students who would have been affected by the forced unionization of GSRAs.

In another legal twist in the debate over whether college students can be unionized, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission ruled Thursday that graduate student research assistants are not public employees.

"We feel it's right and we are happy about it," said Layla Houshmand, a graduate student at the University of Michigan and a member of Students Against GSRA Unionization. "I'm in this for my own education and I never felt like a state employee."

Earlier this year, a federal judge declared unconstitutional a state law that said student research assistants were not public employees.

MERC, however, cited a similar ruling it made in 1981 that stated that graduate student research assistants were “working for themselves" and not the university and therefore were not public employees. MERC concluded it wasn’t the Legislature’s intent when it adopted the Public Employee Relations Act "to give students the right to collectively bargain with their teachers."

"We are pleased that MERC recognized that our clients are students and not employees and they were trying to further their education and not make money for the university," said Patrick Wright, vice president of legal affairs for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which represented a group of graduate students in the case.

The ruling can be challenged either by filing a motion for reconsideration with MERC or by taking it to the Michigan Court of Appeals, Wright said.

The issue has now been addressed with a state law, in the courts and at MERC.

Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 45 of 2012 that said graduate student research assistants are not public employees.

"While graduate student research assistants provide valuable efforts for universities, they are students first and foremost," Gov. Snyder said in a press release at the time. "Considering them to be public employees with union representation would alter the nature of the critical relationship between students and teachers, and risk the educational mission of universities."

However, two years later, U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith of the Eastern District of Michigan, ruled that Public Act 45 violated Michigan's Constitution and was invalid and unenforceable.

Wright said that ruling is being appealed.

Mark Cousens, attorney for the group trying to unionize graduate students, didn't immediately return a phone message left after hours at his office.