Layla Houshmand has a passion for freedom that’s often characteristic of first-generation Americans. Her father was born into abject poverty in Iran, but with a brilliant mathematical mind, he worked his way out of destitution to earn a doctorate at the University of Michigan and become the president of Rowan University in New Jersey.
Houshmand followed in her father’s footsteps at U-M, becoming a graduate student research assistant and pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. Given her ardor for individual liberty, academic achievement and the rule of law, it’s not surprising that she bristled when a campus labor organization tried to label her a government employee and force her into a union. It sought to collect “dues” from her research stipend, in violation of Michigan law.
Above: Some of the 370 University of Michigan graduate student research assistants represented by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation.
The deck seemed stacked against Houshmand, Melinda Day, Adam Duzik and the 2,200 other graduate student research assistants at the university. In a party-line vote, the university’s Board of Regents chose to override the concerns of the U-M president, college deans and graduate student research assistants by giving a green light to the Graduate Employees Organization to unionize the students. This would have doubled the union’s membership and would have allowed it to collect additional dues of over $1 million annually.
This was a flagrant violation of Michigan law, which has long held that research assistants are primarily students, not government or university employees. On behalf of more than 370 graduate student researchers, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation filed suit. The state attorney general agreed and went to the state Supreme Court. While the court said the students lacked standing to sue, Justice Stephen Markman noted the “manifest unfairness” of the “convoluted procedure.” At the urging of the graduate researchers and backed by the Legal Foundation, state lawmakers took action, explicitly defining the researchers as students rather than government employees.
A forced unionization would have been unfair to the student workers and even damaging to the university’s reputation as a world-class research institution. Standing up to this rigged game won students the ability to be free — and focus on their work.