The Mackinac Center Legal Foundation represented
Melinda Day, a graduate student research assistant,
in a case aimed at preventing an illegal unionization
scheme at the University of Michigan. For more
information, please see www.mackinac.org/15525
(Editor’s note: A version of this commentary appeared Aug.
14, 2011, in the Detroit Free Press.)
Employment Relations Commission — a government employment regulatory agency
that usually flies below the radar — made a correct and important decision last
month by declining to recognize graduate student research assistants at the
University of Michigan as public employees subject to unionization. But MERC
and other state agencies have acted imprudently in similar situations. The
Michigan Legislature must clarify the boundaries of public-employee
unionization or risk further damage to Michigan’s civil liberties and economic
Questionable unionizations reinforce the widely held perception among job providers that Michigan is captive to union interests and hostile to business.
In its decision,
MERC rejected a request by the Graduate Employees Organization, a public-sector
union, to organize U of M graduate students who assist in performing research
financed primarily through federal grants received by university faculty. This decision
to disallow the unionization should have been a foregone conclusion. In 1981,
19 days of hearings, thousands of pages of exhibits and hundreds of pages of
legal briefing, MERC had told this very union that this same category of U of M
graduate students could not be unionized because they were not public employees
under Michigan labor law.
But in fact,
last month’s outcome was in doubt. Months had passed since the union had filed
its representation petition, and MERC had been proceeding as if its 1981
decision did not exist. Days before MERC’s decision, the Graduate Employees
Organization had boasted that it expected its request to be ratified shortly.
And even as MERC rejected mandatory collective bargaining for the students on
Monday, it offered to facilitate — apparently at public expense — a nonbinding
union election for the students in question.
MERC has also
erred when presented with other dubious public-sector unionization proposals.
In 2006, MERC permitted union elections for some 40,000 business owners and
other providers of home-based day care services, effectively accepting the
argument that these private-sector contractors were “public employees” because
they received small, indirect federal subsidies through the state when caring for
low-income children. In 2005, MERC accepted a similar unionization of some
41,000 home-based health care aides who likewise receive indirect federal
subsidies through the state. In both cases, so-called “union dues” have been
withheld by the state and redirected to union coffers.
MERC is hardly the only state agency that has made bad calls. With the graduate
student research assistants, a politically divided University of Michigan Board
of Regents passed a resolution supporting a union election for the students,
disregarding the settled law on the issue and the objections of the
university’s president. With the home-based day care providers and home health
care providers, the Michigan Department of Human Services and the Michigan
Department of Community Health, respectively, entered into “interlocal”
agreements containing illegal provisions that permitted shell corporations to
serve as these private workers’ “public employers.”
These abuses of
government power matter. Although the home day care unionization has since been
rescinded by the Department of Human Services, the arrangement lasted for five
years, and the home health care unionization inexplicably continues. Such
blanket unionizations of private individuals are fundamentally unfair to the
tens of thousands of private-sector contractors and business owners who do not
see their homes as union shops and who are trying to support themselves by
providing important services to low-income and vulnerable populations.
Questionable unionizations reinforce the widely held perception among job
providers that Michigan is captive to union interests and hostile to business.
Michigan Constitution, it is the state Legislature — not state agencies or the
boards of public universities — that defines who is a public employee and can
therefore be unionized under state labor law. At the very least, the
Legislature should pass a law clarifying that private contractors and business
owners who receive indirect state subsidies are not public employees and cannot
be organized into public-employee unions. Failing to act will leave the state’s
residents and business owners in perpetual doubt about their government, their
freedom and the state’s economic future.
Patrick J. Wright is
director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation at the Mackinac Center for
Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland,
Mich. Permission to reprint in
whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are