UofM research assistants file suit against MERC

Three of the graduate student research assistants who wished to join the Graduate Employees Organization at the University of Michigan filed suit in U.S. District Court this morning.

The GSRAs are challenging the constitutionality of Public Act 45, a law that was hurriedly passed earlier this year, which that research assistants are not state employees, and cannot then petition the Michigan Employment Relations Commission to hold an election to organize.

The law was passed and signed by the governor before MERC had rendered its decision.

According to the complaint, filed by Mark H. Cousens for the plaintiffs, the statute deprives the research assistants of their constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively, and it does so “without a rational basis. The classification of a single group of individuals is a discrimination that is not justified in fact.”

Gov. to grad students: no union for you

Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation clarifying that graduate student research assistants are not public employees, and cannot hold an election to organize.

The research assistants at the University of Michigan had petitioned to hold an election to organize. The Michigan Attorney General and the conservative-leaning Mackinac Center for Public Policy sought to intervene because the University of Michigan Board of Regents announced the university would allow the students to decide for themselves if they would join a union.

The research assistants will file suit in U.S. District Court, said attorney Mark Cousens, who represents the union, in an email to Michigan Lawyers Weekly. The litigation, he said, will raise equal protection issues and state constitutional questions over how the bill denying the students employee status was adopted.

The state Public Employment Relations Act, or PERA, defines a public employee as someone who holds a position by employment or appointment in state government, in the government of a political subdivision in the state, in a public school or in any other branch of public service.

House Bill 4246, sponsored by state Rep. Al Pscholka, R-Stevensville, adds an exception to PERA by clarifying that the position of graduate student research assistant at universities does not fit the definition of a public employee because they primarily are in school to learn from their professors and earn advanced degrees rather than to earn a wage, according to the governor’s office. However, graduate student teaching assistants are considered employees, and are unionized at the U of M.

Because they are not considered public employees, graduate research assistants are not entitled to union representation or collective bargaining rights.

The bill is Public Act 45 of 2012.

Bill halts research assistants’ unionization efforts

Michigan Senate Republicans, frustrated that Democrats had blocked their bill to prohibit graduate student research assistants from deciding on whether or not they could join a union, added language to another bill in order to push the legislation through yesterday.

The bill was rushed through in an apparent effort to stop the University of Michigan research assistants, who are currently awaiting word on whether or not their election will be ordered. For more on that, read Michigan Lawyers Weekly’s story here. (Subscription required.)

The Senate added the language, originally in Senate Bill 971, to House Bill 4246, the “Local Government and School District Accountability Act.”

The bill passed on March 7, with votes along party lines, over Democrat objections — 26-12 in the Senate and 63-47 in the House.

The bill is awaiting Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature; it would have immediate effect.