MERC Excludes Graduate Student Research Assistants From Judicial Proceedings That Directly Impact Them, Attorney Says

Ruling allowing unionization case to proceed ‘undermines due process’ 

Students’ status as non-employees needs statutory clarification

MIDLAND — Hundreds of University of Michigan students who object to being re-designated as government employees for the purpose of a unionization effort have no say in the administrative proceedings pertinent to the case, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission ruled in a 2-1 vote today. Patrick J. Wright, director of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, said that the exclusion of both the students he represents and the Attorney General leaves the case with parties representing only one position.

The commission also determined that an administrative law judge should decide whether a government-sector union can proceed with an election of graduate student research assistants even though MERC ruled 30 years ago — in a lengthy case involving the exact same parties — that under Michigan law research assistants cannot be placed into a mandatory collective bargaining unit.

“MERC’s ruling undermines due process,” said Wright, who represents more than 370 U-M students opposed to the unionization effort. “We now have a case where an administrative law judge is going to hear from two parties — the union and the university acting at the behest of the Board of Regents — both representing the case for unionization. The students directly impacted by the decision were left out in the cold. This outcome conflicts with testimony MERC Director Ruthanne Okun provided to the state Senate last year about a similar matter.

“It’s likely we will appeal this decision,” Wright added. “But it’s also time that the Legislature and governor get involved. MERC has demonstrated its willingness to disregard the rights of those directly affected by unionization efforts.”

Wright noted that the state of Ohio has a law preventing graduate students from being unionized. Michigan policymakers could prevent these and future students from forced unionization efforts with legislation that explicitly precludes it. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in a motion filed in the case argued that given the U-M’s scholarly reputation, and its impact on jobs and tax revenues, the case is “a matter of public interest” to the entire state, thereby highlighting the importance of this question.

In November, Wright submitted a motion on behalf of the 370-member “Students Against GRSA Unionization,” asking MERC to stand by its 1981 ruling. In July, the MCLF filed the original motion opposing the election on behalf of U-M graduate student research assistant Melinda Day.

MERC upheld the law by written order in September by rejecting a petition from the Graduate Employees Organization to conduct a unionization election on the U-M campus, but overturned that decision today following the GEO’s motion for reconsideration.

Earlier this year, the U-M Board of Regents voted 6-2 to allow the GEO to pursue the unionization, although a letter to Provost Philip Hanlon from the deans of 19 of the 20 schools and colleges at the university expressed concern about the “potential negative impacts that would result from (this) unionization.”

For more information about the case, visit

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