Grad Student Workers Plan Counterattack After Michigan Gov. Signs Law Denying Rights

eidelson-headshotUnion plans to win recognition rights through political and legal challenges rather than demanding voluntary recognition

Following two years of organizing and months of hearings, this month Michigan’s state labor board was set to rule on whether to reverse a 1981 decision that stripped union recognition from the state university’s graduate student research assistants (GSRAs).  That ruling never happened. Instead Michigan’s House and Senate passed a bill declaring GSRAs ineligible for union recognition, and Governor Rick Snyder signed it into law on March 13.

“We were clearly disappointed – disturbed, even – that our rights as graduate employees were attacked in this manner…” says Graduate Employees Organization President Samantha Montgomery. “To have the Michigan legislature pre-empt their ability to have an election in this way is very disheartening.”  GEO, also known as Local 3550 of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has represented University of Michigan graduate student employees since 1975.

Montgomery says the union will push back against the law on multiple fronts: filing a legal challenge, pushing for a constitutional amendment, and continuing to tackle workplace issues facing research assistants and other graduate student employees.

In an e-mailed statement, Governor Snyder said, “While graduate student research assistants provide valuable efforts for universities, they are students first and foremost.  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.”

Montgomery, a graduate student in the university’s Psychology and Women’s Studies departments, calls Snyder’s statement “yet another one of those anti-union misconceptions about the role of collective bargaining.” Over four decades, says Montgomery, GEO has “done nothing but help to improve the lives and working conditions for graduate employees, and make it a more competitive place and a more attractive place for graduate students to come.”

Because the University of Michigan is a public institution, its labor relations are governed by state labor law, rather than the National Labor Relations Act, and by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC), rather than the National Labor Relations Board. As I’ve reported for In These Times, private-sector graduate student employees won recognition rights from the NLRB for the first time in 2000, lost them in 2004, and now are looking to Obama’s NLRB nominees to restore them once again.  While some states ban public employee union recognition entirely, others recognized graduate student workers decades before the NLRB did, and have continued for years after the NLRB stopped.

University of Michigan GSRAs had union recognition until 1981. The university began recognizing GEO as the collective bargaining agent for GSRAs and two other categories of graduate student employees – instructors and staff assistants – in 1975.  But at the expiration of GEO’s first contract, the university challenged its obligation to collectively bargain with graduate student employees. The MERC issued a split decision: graduate student instructors and staff assistants were workers with recognition rights, but GSRAs were not.

Two years ago, with GEO’s backing, GSRAs began campaigning to win back union recognition. Last spring, a majority of the 2,200 GSRAs petitioned the MERC seeking a union recognition election. The MERC denied the petition but requested more information regarding the grounds for reversing its 1981 decision.

In October 2011, GEO presented evidence arguing that the role of GSRAs had changed since the labor board excluded them from recognition rights: Research has become a central mission of the university, and GSRA’s research now is often unrelated to their dissertations. In contrast to 1980, says Montgomery, university regents backed recognition. At the labor board, “they attested to the role that RAs play and how they are treated as employees.” Management’s support increased GEO’s optimism about a reversal from the MERC. Instead, Michigan Republicans took the decision out of the labor board’s hands.

GSRAs plan to challenge the new law, PA 45, on constitutional grounds in U.S. District Court.  Mark Cousens, an attorney representing GEO, said in an e-mail that the suit will assert that the law “deprives GSRAs of the equal protection of the law” by “irrationally classifying them as non-employees.” Cousens expects the lawsuit to be filed early next month. Wisconsin unions challenged Scott Walker’s restriction of collective bargaining on similar grounds last year.

GEO has also joined the push by several Michigan unions to add a collective bargaining rights amendment to the state constitution. If unions gather the required 322,609 signatures, and their wording survives legal challenge, the proposed amendment will land on November’s ballot. In Florida in 1982, collective bargaining language in the state constitution led an appeals court to overturn a state law declaring graduate students not to be workers.

While making a legal and political push for recognition, Montgomery says GEO will continue working to improve working conditions for GSRAs and other graduate student employees.

GEO is pressuring the university’s regents to change eligibility restrictions for the university’s child care subsidy, which is only available to graduate students whose partners are employed at least 20 hours a week. Montgomery says that GSRAs are also active participants in preparing for contract negotiations for GEO’s existing bargaining units in 2014; many students are GSRAs at one point in their University of Michigan career and graduate student teachers at another.

Both GEO’s legal challenge and its constitutional amendment push face substantial obstacles. But there’s another route open to GSRAs seeking union recognition, though it faces steep challenges of its own. While Snyder’s law excludes GSRAs from legal recognition rights, it does not prevent the university from voluntarily recognizing and bargaining with them.

Cousens says any such recognition “would be ‘extra-legal,’ i.e. not unlawful but not subject to the Public Employment Relations Act,” Michigan’s public employee labor law. The union would lack PERA protections or recourse to the MERC.

“Voluntary recognition is possible, then,” says Cousens, “but would be very complicated.”

Montgomery says that although the administration has not taken an anti-union stance, some deans and faculty have expressed their opposition to recognition, and there have been “instances of intimidation and even retaliation against some our activists…It highlights the problems when workers don’t have protection in place and the problems with this legislation that denies this group of workers their rights, because it gives us fewer avenues to pursue justice for these people.”

Asked why GEO’s campaign for GSRA recognition is pursuing legal and political challenges rather than targeting the administration with a campaign demanding voluntary recognition, Montgomery says, “I think our members are hopeful that the university will continue to work with us. And we hope that one day they will have the full protections of the Public Employment Relations Act.”

This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on March 26, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Josh Eidelson is a freelance writer and a contributor at In These Times, The American Prospect, Dissent, and Alternet.  After receiving his MA in Political Science, he worked as a union organizer for five years.  His website is

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.