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UM Regents hold emergency vote on grad student union hearings

Members of the Graduate Employees Organization picketing on the North Campus of the University of Michigan in 2008.
Photo courtesy of UM GEO
Members of the Graduate Employees Organization picketing on the North Campus of the University of Michigan in 2008.

The University of Michigan Regents voted today to oppose a Senate bill that would prohibit certain U of M graduate students from joining a union.

The regents and U of M President Mary Sue Coleman held an emergency meeting by phone this morning to talk about Republican Randy Richardville’s proposal (S.B. 971) to bar U of M graduate student research assistants(GSRAs) from unionizing. 

A Senate committee is holding a hearing on the bill today.

U of M Regent Laurence Deitch, a democrat, moved to have the Regents oppose the bill, saying the Michigan Employment Relations Commission(MERC)  has jurisdiction on the issue, and is in the middle of holding a hearing about it.

"Adoption of this law would be tantamount to changing the rules of the game in the middle of that game," explains Deitch. He also says the bill infringes on the University’s internal decision making processes.

Republican Regent Andrea Newman opposed the measure, and questioned the validity of the “emergency” and whether the hastily called meeting violated the Open Meetings Act.

"To take action without any discussion, without any public comment, and without any notice seems to me to fly in the face of openness and inclusion," says Newman.

The Regents voted along party lines, with the six Democrats on the Board voting in favor of the measure to oppose the Senate bill, and the two Republican regents voting against it.

Last May, the U of M Board of Regents voted 6 to 2 to recognize the university's roughly 2,200 GSRAs as public employees with the right to vote to form a union.

The Michigan Employment Relations Commission found otherwise in a 1981 ruling. U of M's Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) hopes to use the current MERC hearing to overturn that ruling.

As for Senator Richardville's bill, GEO spokesperson Kathryn Frank says they're "disappointed that all these politicians in Lansing are trying to take away the right to vote on unionizing for graduate student research assistants. There’s already a process through the state’s labor board to determine who are workers, and that process needs to be respected."

Michael Jahr is with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank. Jahr says his group represents about 370 U of M research assistants who are against unionization, some of whom will testify before the Senate committee hearing:

"Many students have told us: if I had a choice between another university and the University of Michigan, where I would have to have a union involved in my academic pursuits, I would not have chosen the University of Michigan. And the concern is that the University of Michigan is going to suffer as a result of this."

Those opposed to the unionization will also testify before the administrative law judge in charge of the MERC hearing.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
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