A recently proposed bill that may prevent graduate student research assistants from unionizing was discussed in a Michigan Senate Government Operations committee Tuesday.
The proposed bill, Senate Bill 0971, would remove the collective bargaining rights and entitlement to representation of the more than 2,000 GSRAs in Michigan. State Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, R-Monroe, proposed the bill Feb. 15 and chaired Tuesday’s committee meeting.
The proposed bill comes on the heels of a group of graduate students’ efforts to overturn a Michigan Employment Relations Committee ruling in 1981, which declared GSRAs as students.
“An individual serving as a graduate student research assistant or in an equivalent position and any individual whose position does not have sufficient indicia of an employment relationship is not a public employee entitled to representation or collective bargaining rights under this act,” the proposed bill stated.
Amber McCann, Richardville’s press secretary, said the proposed bill stemmed from conversations Richardville had with research assistants from the University of Michigan who did not wish to be unionized.
On Thursday, the U-M Board of Regents called an emergency meeting to vote to oppose the bill. The Detroit Free Press reported that the board voted in a straight-party line, six Democrats voting against it and two Republicans voting for it.
“The bill is pretty concise,” McCann said. “Really, this is born out of discussions that the majority leader had specifically with research assistants at U-M that felt that they would be faced with the imminent possibility of being unionized.”
Ruthanne Okun, director of Michigan’s Bureau of Employment Relations, said MERC has a case pending on whether GSRAs are classified as students or employees. Okun said a 1981 ruling by MERC against GSRAs from unionizing, graduate student teaching assistants were still allowed to organize.
“The question that the judge from the Michigan administrative is determining is whether the facts have changed since the 1981 ruling,” Okun said.
McCann said Richardville is not concerned about differentiating between teaching assistants and GSRAs, and graduate student teachers will still be viewed as public employees.
“Research assistants are there simply because they’re working on their own academic pursuit in conjunction with the university,” McCann said.
Cedar Springs graduate student Michelle Campbell, vice president of Central Michigan University’s Graduate Student Union, said she was concerned about the wording of the proposed bill and questioned what the equivalent position mentioned in the legislation might include.
“The big problem I have with the proposed wording of the bill that was introduced is that it says ‘graduate research assistants or an equivalent position,’ but they don’t define exactly what that equivalent position is,” Campbell said.
Midland graduate student Jim Kowalski, the union’s treasurer, said some of CMU’s graduate assistants work in both research and teaching roles, making their employment title difficult to define.
“We have a number of people whose appointment is partially research and partially teaching,” Kowalski said. “So we’re wondering what type of interpretation would be applied to those people.”