Mackinac Center Legal Foundation

MCLF Protects Grad Students from Forced Unionism

The Foundation seeks to prevent the Michigan Employment Relations Commission from violating its previous ruling that research assistants are students, not public employees. The motion was filed on behalf of Melinda Day, a graduate research assistant in the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department of the University of Michigan. The Foundation scored a victory on Aug. 8, 2011, when MERC stood by its earlier decision and refused to certify a binding union election.

The Issue

Melinda Day is a graduate student and research assistant at the University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Institute. She spends her days in the university lab, working closely with her mentor on her dissertation research — and for this activity, she may soon be unionized as a “public employee.”

In April 2011, a union known as the Graduate Employees Organization petitioned the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to allow the GEO to begin the process of unionizing U of M graduate research assistants. In May, the Regents of the University of Michigan voted 6-2 to support the idea, despite the disagreement of university President Mary Sue Coleman, who told them: “I do not see research assistants as our employees but as our students. … When I was a graduate student, I did not see myself as working for the university and I did not see my faculty mentor as my employer. Far from it.”

The regents certainly didn’t consult Day, who takes exception to being represented by the GEO. She has every right to object: Graduate research assistants are not public employees; they’re students meeting requirements for their degrees.

This is not just her view and Mary Sue Coleman’s; it’s the view of the Michigan Employment Relations Commission itself. In 1981, MERC came to this very conclusion in a case involving the exact same union (the GEO) at the exact same university (U of M) concerning the exact same group of students (graduate research assistants). MERC delivered its ruling after 19 days of hearings, thousands of pages of exhibits and hundreds of pages of legal briefs.

MERC cannot legally ignore this precedent. Yet for months, the commission has allowed the GEO’s petition for unionization to move forward as if its earlier ruling had never occurred.If the effort is successful, the GEO stands to double its membership and more than double its dues to over $1 million annually.

Under Michigan law, MERC should reject the petition. The University of Michigan’s Board of Regents cannot unilaterally change the laws of this state, and the GEO has made no attempt to show the earlier MERC ruling was flawed.

The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation is now representing Day. On July 28, 2011, the Foundation filed a motion with MERC asking it to reject the GEO’s application.

For Day, this motion isn’t just a matter of principle; it’s a matter of personal experience. When she was a U of M teaching assistant, Day was forced to pay fees to the GEO and to allow the union to represent her in collective bargaining, even though she had refused to join the union. She is familiar with the GEO’s current contract standards — standards that would prove unworkable for research assistants.

“It would hinder our ability to do science,” Day observes. “Cells don’t know that work hours are 9 to 5. Cells don’t know when it’s the weekend. I recently completed an experiment that involved taking samples every eight hours. I wouldn’t have been able to do that under the strict work-hour regulations the GEO wants.”

Unionization of graduate research assistants could also cause the University of Michigan to lose some of its best applicants. Graduate students would know that U of M was one of the few universities where part of the research stipend would be taken for union dues. And as Day points out: “Unionization would be bad for us economically. We would be forced to pay for contract negotiations that have no bearing on our overall stipends, since those are dictated by the federal grants that finance our research.”

If MERC nevertheless approves the request by the U of M regents and the GEO to permit unionization, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation will consider further legal options. Melinda Day’s research is at stake — and so is the rule of law.

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