MI Graduate Student Research Assistants Try to Unionize, Legislature Refuses

As Michigan’s state labor board was about to vote on reversing a rule denying graduate student research assistants (GSRAs) union recognition, the state legislature preempted the vote and passed a bill making recognition unavailable. After years of pushing for the labor board vote, Michigan GSRAs are angry and disappointed by the legislature’s action. The GSRAs were hoping for a recognized union to engage in collective bargaining on their behalf and to protect their rights as student employees.

GSRAs perform important functions at Michigan colleges and universities. The research GSRAs conduct plays a large role in university prestige and advancement. In fact, University of Michigan regents backed union recognition at a state labor board meeting recognizing the important work that GSRAs do and acknowledging the GSRAs’ status as employees.

So what can the GSRAs do now? One option the GSRAs are pursing is legal action by making an Equal Protection constitutional challenge in federal court arguing against the classification of GSRAs as non-employees. Additionally, there is a push within the state to add a collective bargaining rights amendment to the state constitution. Proponents of the initiative are hoping to have the proposed amendment voted on in November.

Perhaps the most promising option for timely recognition is for individual universities to voluntarily recognize GSRA unions. Some argue that this option would not give GSRAs as many protections as official state recognition or any option for recourse if bargaining went sour. However, at this point, voluntary recognition may be GSRAs’ best chance to at least get on track with what they are working towards.  If voluntary recognition leads to productive, professional bargaining between the two parties, the GSRAs will have even more fuel to back their attack on the legislature’s decision. Additionally, GRSA voluntary union recognition would provide compelling evidence of employee status for the upcoming constitutional challenge. Voluntary recognition may not be ideal or easy, but it is a viable option toward union recognition for GSRAs. I think the GSRAs would be wise to consider voluntary recognition for now, to ensure some collective rights as the legislative and judicial challenges continue.

See the original post and GSRA testimony before the Michigan House of Representatives here.

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