News Story

Blocking Forced Unionization Dissent?

Lawyer: State agency 'stacking the deck'

All in favor say "aye." Those opposed aren't allowed in the room.

That's basically the process being considered regarding the potential forced unionization of University of Michigan graduate student research assistants, according to a legal expert at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Earlier this month, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission discussed turning the forced unionization issue over to an administrative law judge. Meanwhile, MERC isn't allowing the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation to intervene in the case on behalf of students who oppose the unionization.

That means that if the case does move to an administrative law judge, that judge would only hear arguments from the U-M Board of Regents and the Graduate Employees Organization. Both of these entities want the forced unionization to take place. If opposing arguments are voiced, it will apparently be outside of court.

“There is no point in MERC having an evidentiary hearing if the only parties it allows to participate are in agreement with what their evidence will show,” said Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center for Legal Foundation. “The proposed process is seriously flawed since it denies hundreds of graduate students their due process rights to representation in court. By only allowing the pro-unionization side to present evidence, MERC is stacking the deck.”

In April 2011, the GEO (an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers), petitioned MERC to allow the GEO to begin the process of unionizing U-M graduate student research assistants. In May, the University of Michigan Board of Regents voted 6-2 to support the request, despite opposition from U-M President Mary Sue Coleman and 18 of the 19 deans of the university's schools and colleges.

A precedent for the situation exists. In 1981, MERC determined that graduate student research assistants at U-M were not public employees and therefore not subject to unionization. This ruling came after 19 days of hearings, thousands of pages of exhibits and hundreds of pages of legal briefs,

In spite of the 1981 precedent, MERC allowed the GEO’s petition for unionization to move forward. MCLF intervened on behalf of Melinda Day on July 28 and filed a motion with MERC asking it to reject the GEO’s application.

On Aug. 8, 2011, MERC indicated it was going to dismiss the representation petition but not allow Day to intervene. On Sept. 14, MERC formalized its Aug. 8 decision. The GEO filed a motion for reconsideration, arguing that the1981 decision was not binding, and if that decision was not binding then MERC was free to reconsider whether graduate student research assistants were public employees.

MCLF then filed a second intervention request, this time on behalf of a group of some 370-plus graduate research assistants who opposed unionization.

On Nov.8, MERC indicated it was leaning toward having an administrative law judge examine whether or not the research assistants should be considered as eligible for unionization. Meanwhile, it also decided to freeze the MCLF, and the 370-plus students, out of the discussion.

MERC commissioners could not be reached for comment on this article. According to Ruthanne Okun, director of the Michigan Bureau of Employment Relations, the commissioners typically do not comment on pending cases.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.