When an employer, labor organization and state agency all agree that a union vote should proceed in direct conflict with the law, those targeted for unionization have little recourse. But for nearly 400 graduate student research assistants at the University of Michigan, representation by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation might help them avoid what otherwise would have been a fait accompli.

The odd tale began in 1981, when after weeks of hearings and thousands of pages of exhibits, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission determined that graduate student research assistants were not public employees and therefore not subject to compulsory unionization. In April 2011, the same union that failed 30 years ago, the Graduate Employees Organization, again sought to unionize the approximately 2,200 GSRAs at the U-M. This time, the union did so with a powerful ally — a majority of the university’s Board of Regents.

Ignoring the 1981 ruling, the regents in a partisan 6-2 vote agreed not to challenge the claim that GSRAs were public employees. This left no one to represent the students’ claim that they are not government employees. 

The MCLF stepped in, seeking to intervene on behalf of graduate student Melinda Day. MCLF Director Patrick Wright informed MERC that it had a duty to enforce its own findings. MERC agreed that its 1981 ruling was binding and indicated that the unionization attempt could not continue, but claimed that Day alone could not intervene. MERC contended that at least 10 percent of the proposed bargaining unit would be required to enter the case.

The union filed a motion for reconsideration with MERC seeking to allow the unionization to continue and erroneously claiming the facts of the case had changed. The University acknowledged that the facts had not changed, but because of the regents’ directive, was compelled to agree that GSRAs could be considered public employees.

Once again, the MCLF sought to intervene, this time on behalf of a 371-member group of GSRAs opposing the government employees union. In a Kafka-esque twist on due-process, two of the three commissioners at MERC’s November meeting indicated a willingness to have the matter examined by an administrative law judge. This opened the door for dissenting graduate student research assistants to be forced into a compulsory union even as they are excluded from participating in the case.

In a surprise move, Attorney General Bill Schuette announced in late November that his office would intervene in the case. Wright said that the rarity of an Attorney General entering at such an early stage of an administrative process was a welcome sign and indicated the critical importance of the issue.

While the case was still ongoing at the time of this writing, the legal arguments put forth by Wright — and the increased visibility that resulted — have given voice to students who otherwise might have had no say in their own fate.