U-M Public Employee Union Still Seeking to Unionize Non-Employee Students

Victory could mean $1 million in annual extra dues payments for union bosses

One week ago, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) dealt a big blow to the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at the University of Michigan. MERC voted 3-0 to reject the union’s petition to unionize graduate student research assistants (GSRAs), a move that would have doubled the GEO membership at the university and would have raised an estimated $1 million in dues. The GEO currently includes two other categories of graduate students: teaching assistants and graduate student staff assistants.

As a public employee union, the GEO needs MERC approval to hold an election on unionization. But in response to a request for this permission, MERC upheld its own 1981 ruling in a case involving the exact same unionization attempt, ruling that these student assistants are not public employees and therefore out of the agency’s jurisdiction.

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The decision followed a Mackinac Center Legal Foundation challenge to a GEO petition asking MERC to certify the unionization election.

The GEO lamented this decision on its website, but insisted the fight’s not over. In fact, the GEO stated that MERC, the very agency that rejected their petition, will still help the union in its unionization efforts:

“MERC’s decision does not prevent GSRAs from participating in an election. To the contrary, MERC recommended that GEO and the University move forward with the election. In addition, MERC offered to conduct the election.”

Other media reports also indicate MERC’s decision has clearly not derailed the GEO’s desire to bring more students into its public employee union. GEO President Samantha Montgomery told Ann Arbor.com on Aug. 8: “This is not the end,” and, “we’re hoping to continue to keep working with the university to reach a finalized decision.”

Montgomery, however, also acknowledges the main problem with her group’s efforts: MERC’s 1981 declaration that the GSRA’s are not public employees. She was cited in AnnArbor.com as saying that the GEO was “still figuring out how graduate student research assistants would be worked into the union… given the (MERC’s) ruling that they are not public employees and cannot unionize.”

Patrick Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation says the GEO can move ahead with an election. However, any resulting unionization would be non-binding. Therefore, he says the motives behind MERC’s cooperation to help the GEO’s seemingly stubborn drive to push non-public employees into its union are suspect: “Why is MERC helping with a non-binding election?”

The university is also apparently working with the GEO to eventually hold an election. The GEO’s website says the following: “GEO plans to work with the University of Michigan to set the details of the election.”

Wright says any election that happens should raise red flags about cost, if nothing else.

“If the union’s not paying for it,” said Wright, “then the question becomes, ‘Why would we be spending government money on a non-binding election in the first place?’ I don’t think the university or MERC should help. It’s showing favoritism for no reason.”

That favoritism, Wright says, could pave the way to more serious political consequences.

“The union activists will stay active,” he said, “and this could turn the election process into a political statement that many graduate students want no part of and thus low voter turnout among many graduate students who want no part of a union.”

Wright said a lopsided election could result and what’s alarming is that the GEO could use these results as grounds to appeal the MERC decision.

“This would allow the GEO to gain the monopoly bargaining power the union has been seeking all along.”

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See also:

Case Backgrounder: Prevent Illegal Unionization of U of M Graduate Student Research Assistants