Right Winger Schuette Proposes to Block Unionization by UMich Research Assistants

The University of Michigan boasts one of the most successful graduate student unions in the country. The Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) can be credited for helping UM graduate students get one of the best deals among all American graduate schools. Those of us who receive funding from the UM and other sources enjoy a guaranteed decent wage, a health care plan identical to that which standard UM employees receive, and a place to turn for help to when things go sour.

Though all funded graduate students receive the same minimum guarantees that GEO members do, until now only teaching assistants have been officially allowed into the union. In the early 80’s when GEO was formed, teaching assistants far outnumbered paid research assistants (GSRA’s_, and the thinking was that GSRA’s were a special category of graduate student that did not require representation by a union.

The numbers, however, have vastly shifted as UM slowly became a research giant. Now, GSRA’s outnumber teaching assistants and play a vital role in the University’s standing as a massive research institution. GEO has embarked on a plan to allow GSRA’s to integrate with the union and is calling for a vote among all GSRA’s to decided whether this should, in fact, happen. What appeared to be a simple procedure has now turned into a political battlefield.

Right wing groups, specifically, the conservative think tank the Mackinac Center (whom I’ve written of before), have entered the fight, seeking to prevent the student union from expanding. As we have seen in other states, all public unions are under fire from rightists who ostensibly see collective bargaining as an obstacle to a free market but, in reality, merely seek to consolidate power into a few hands.

It’s no surprise, of course, that 19 present and former self-interested school deans have also opposed the unionization of GSRA’s, making the bizarre claim that a worker’s union (which in effect already represents the GSRA’s in practice) would somehow discourage students from coming the UM. I can see it now, “Hmmm, this school has a graduate student union, not going there!”


Fortunately, the Mackinac Center failed in their bid to block the state board, MERC, from hearing the case to allow GSRA’s to merely vote on whether to join the union. The Mackinac Center waged a laughable campaign where they enlisted a single poorly spoken graduate student to public protest the GSRA effort, implying that the unionization of GSRA’s would prevent students from finishing their degrees and shutter the mighty University of Michigan for good.

Tea Party favorite and extreme right-winger Bill Schuette has now also entered the fight against unionization of GSRA’s, though this should be of little surprise. Schuette has intimate ties with the Mackinac Center and, in fact, was a guest of honor at one of their events. Schuette opposes the Affordable Health Care Act, and has in fact sued (using Michigan dollars) to have it overturned. Schuette can’t figure out whether he’s for or against medical marijuana but definitely knows that he wants to put pot-heads in jail. Schuette has actively tried to close abortion clinics in Saginaw. Schuette hates immigrants, and, in fact, despite being in the Michigan government, inexplicably made supporting the racist Arizona immigration law a part of his election platform. Wow. Who voted for this guy?

It should be obvious that this issue is about more than just some small local issue, but part of a growing trend of right wing power consolidation that is occurring (or maybe has been continually occurring) all over the country. I, for one, support the right for all to unionize. The small can only resist the powerful in large numbers.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

11 responses to “Right Winger Schuette Proposes to Block Unionization by UMich Research Assistants”

  1. PAtrick O'Mahen says :

    Right on Pete. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have said that they came to UM in part because there *was* a union representing GSIs. The Medical System actually advertises the House Officers’ Association (which represents medical residents) as a reason for new doctors to do their residency at Michigan.

  2. GSRA says :

    I bet you “can’t tell” him because this statement is completely moronic. No GSRA comes to U of M because there is a union. And if told “Oh by the way the union will be taking $440 from you every year,” many would consider Michigan’s offer to be reduced by exactly that amount compared to other peer institutions. And before you say it: no, UMass is not a peer institution.

    Pete got one thing right in his post: GEO is actively trying to expand the union to include GSRAs. Unfortunately, what should have been a clear and simple choice (since GEO offers nothing in return for charging dues; as you point out GSRAs already get the same things as GSIs) has turned into a political battle. GEO supporters are all too happy to ignore that there are actual GSRAs opposed to unionization. They’re also very happy to ignore that their own patron liberal organization, AFT/AFL-CIO, is heavily involved in this battle. But hey, it is always nice to point out that evil republicans and tea-partiers agree with your opposition.

    Pete clearly indicates his ideological standing with regard to unions, and like so many members of GEO, he allows that blind ideology to blind him to the actual pragmatic issue at hand: GSRAs will not benefit from unionizing, they will only lose $440/year.

  3. Pete Larson says :

    I agree that no graduate student may come to UM because there is a union. I don’t however, understand how that makes the converse true. The presence of a union would not likely dissuade graduate students from coming to the UM, which is the argument presented by the UM admin and UM deans.

    I think that the benefits of the presence of a union are fairly obvious, though I will allow someone else to provide a laundry list of arguments for the inclusion of GSRA’s into GEO. I will point out that I once ran into a GSRA who had come to GEO to help mediate a dispute with an abusive faculty member. The individual had no other means with which to initiate a complaint.

    As for political bias and liberal slant, I will point out that I don’t make my political leanings a secret and this personal blog (vs. “objective” news source) should attest to that. I don’t however, believe that my politics make me as blind as you suggest. Evidence trumps politics in my world.

    You bring up a valid point regarding costs and benefits of joining a union. I believe, though, that the right wing assault on the GSRA campaign speaks loudly to a general trend of right wing assaults on unions everywhere. Truthfully, these people are worried about bigger issues than your $440.00. I called out an Armani suited rep from the Mackinac Center on the same point. The argument of union dues merely serves as a cover for the real issues.

    That you refer to me as “Pete” leads me to assume that you know me, as that name never appears on this blog. I am very happy that you have posted on my blog (no one else does!), but if it is the case that I run into you on a daily basis, I would be very interested to hear your views. Please don’t hesitate to discuss them with me. I try to be a friendly guy.

  4. Anonymous says :

    Would someone care to comment on what the implications are for the research advisors in this issue, should the union be formed?

    I’m a liberal-minded person in the usual sense, and in fact I am in principle pro-union as a way to protect labor against capital.

    However, as a faculty member, who has to work very very hard to bring in funding to support GSRAs (and for those in this business you know how abysmal the success rate is), I fail to see the prevailing argument for *this particular union*. If the wages and benefits go up (as the union presumably will fight for) faster than my ability to obtain funding (which is very likely; there is only so much I can do as an individual), then I will be forced to reduce the number of GSRAs I support or hire, meaning some of them will lose financial support all together. Is that considered a desirable outcome for the GSRAs? Certainly not for me, but the union is supposed to protect them, and will/can they be protected against loss of external funding??

    Most discussions I see continue to pitch the union as an issue between the students (or employees if you like; I don’t care about the semantics) and the university. But in reality it will inevitably become an issue between the students and their advisors. Because the additional financial burden is almost surely going to be transferred to the faculty, which is neither fair nor practically workable. I don’t necessarily agree with the deans that the presence of a union will discourage students from coming to UM, or necessarily the opposite as some argued. What I do see is that it will eventually force me, an individual faculty member who cares about his/her students, to simply hire fewer number of GSRAs. It’s pure, simply math; there is only so much I can do. Or I will have to spend so much more time in writing grants that I will have no time left to actually work with my GSRAs. Is that considered added benefit for the GSRA? The university is not going to chip in in any significant way in this regard, which is universally viewed as a matter of personal and academic competence.

    I agree that focusing on the $400 annual dues is losing the forest for the trees, and I am very uncomfortable with being associated with right-wingers who for their own ideological agenda are against the union in this case. But for the same reason, neither ideology nor symbolism should be used to argue for the union. Some measure of pragmatism goes a long way in educating people as well as in effecting changes.

    If the response to us faculty caught in the middle of this battle is: too bad; why don’t you go and form your own union (after all we the faculty are indeed employees of the university), then we all know the answer to that. Since we have tenure protection, there is no chance in hell we will get through the union bid. Tenure however only protects academic/intellectual freedom; tenure does not give us additional financial means to support GSRAs.

    If the response is that the additional financial burden should be transferred to the university, then it is again unworkable. Where does the university get its money from? state appropriation, endowment and research funding. We can forget about the first; the second someone has to work on and sure maybe we can slave-drive them more; the third relies on, oh yeah, faculty! So we are back to where we started: has anyone thought about what this whole thing means for the faculty? who are also part of the labor?

    To me this union is a wedge between one part of the labor and another part of the labor that nobody has yet been willing to recognize or acknowledge. So if someone argues for it as a noble and just cause in principle, then that someone is either hypocritical or ill-informed, because this union is not going to force the capital to compromise (frankly I am not sure what represents capital in this situation); it is simply going to force another segment of labor to compromise and be exploited.

    Until I hear some convincing and carefully thought-out views on this, the present pro-union argument is very one-sided, and very unlikely to gain sympathy from the faculty (who I might add are predominantly liberal-minded). And if the faculty are not happy and have to slave-drive themselves even more than they already are, why in the world would someone think this is a good idea for the GSRAs, who rely on the faculty to get good mentorship, training, and research guidance??

  5. GSRA says :

    An out of order response: I refered to you as “Pete” because the post is by “Pete Larson” on peterslarson.com… I don’t know you personally, but I didn’t mean any slight by referring to you as “Pete”.

    I’m a GSRA, not a member of the UM administration. I don’t necessarily care about why they don’t want a union or support their arguments. My view, as well as that of many GSRAs, is that we have an extremely good deal right now. We have the same pay and benefits as GSIs, we don’t get hassled for political issues by the union, we don’t have to pay dues, we don’t have to deal with the added bureaucracy and we don’t have to choose between “union loyalty” and our departments every 3 years because the contract is up.

    I was a GSI in 2007-08. I personally witnessed the incompetency and charade of the union negotiations. I do not wish to give some aggrieved group of students the power to muck up a situation that is great for me and then charge me money for it. I will also leave off the laundry list of why I don’t think it’s such an obvious benefit for students to be unionized, though.

    There probably is a general trend of right-wing assaults on unions. I am no fan of republicans, either. However, to claim that there has been a “right wing assault” on GEO is disingenuous. (Nothing makes me madder than GEO’s constant hyperbole with regard to everything). No one is trying to limit or disband GEO. If anything, unions are trying to expand their power by reclassifying a students as workers so that they can unionize. The natural response of the right here is to push back.

    An assault this is not. Nonetheless, I hardly care about why Mackinac Center is fighting to preserve my status as a student, because I want it preserved and do not possess the resources of a union to fight for it.

  6. Pete Larson says :

    No offense was taken, I merely wondered if you were someone I knew. Then, we wouldn’t have to be conversing over email.

    As for this blog, I am not an agent of GEO. This blog represents my views and my views only. If I talk of “right wing assaults” or bash the Mackinac Center, those are my opinions, not the opinions of GEO.

    I respect your opinions. I will point out that GSRA’s are NOT guaranteed the same wage as GSI’s. Often, they make less. Also, the University is under no obligation to provide the same health care plan, if at all. Many grants require that GSRA’s receive health care and some guarantee certain wages, but not all.

    As the University is not required to provide the same plan to GSRA’s as GSI, the University could develop a two tier system of health care and, to my knowledge, the idea has been proposed in the past. I think that this threat is quite real.

    I recognize your dislike of GEO members, though I am hesitant to believe that this is only about money. Many of them just believe in unions. I know I do and that’s why I’m involved, if only in the limited capacity of writing about the campaign on my blog from time to time.

    In the end, you are free to do as you wish. The point of the campaign is to be able to put the issue up to a vote. Then present GSRA’s can decide collectively whether to unionize or not. I would assume that a vote would be acceptable, yes?


  7. GSRA says :

    You bring up several valid points:

    1) The university does not have to provide the same wages and benefits. There is no guarantee (as with many things in grad school). Yet GSRAs should look at the fact that our benefits have not been reduced in the past and there’s no reason to believe they will be in the future since the University doesn’t want GSRAs to be at a disadvantage compared to GSIs. The disparity between GSI and GSRA minimum salaries is less than $100. Moreover, the vast majority of GSIs and GSRAs are paid above the contract minimums at rates set by each department. These rates reflect the fact that departments compete for grad students with peer institutions and need to make offers that are equivalent or better than other schools.

    2) Many if not most GEO members do wholeheartedly believe that unions are good and ergo being unionized is good. I think that this is a naive view if one doesn’t consider practical implications. Yes, a union gives you some power and security, but when one’s situation is not nearly as bad as the union tries to claim, this power and security may not justify the cost. Money may not be the only motivating factor here, but it seems to me that the parent union (AFT-MI) stands to gain a lot more from unionizing GSRAs than GSRAs themselves.

    I’m actually somewhat torn on the issue of a vote for several reasons:
    First of all, there are many GSRAs that do not believe they are employees (even allowing this vote has major implications for all grad students in Michigan since currently GSRAs are NOT classified as employees).

    Second many don’t think being forced into a union by a simple majority vote of participants is right (and since there are mandatory fees and the contract covers everyone, effectively everyone is forced into the union if the vote is ‘yes’).

    Third, GEO has a major advantage in this campaign in terms of organization, resources, legal, etc. It is hard to imagine how GSRAs opposed to unionizing can mount a campaign to visit every GSRA in their office or home as GEO did with the help of AFT. Also, GEO had huge sway in negotiating the conditions of the vote, while the opposition had none. Since the vote will clearly be decided by who can turn out their supporters, GEO has a huge edge.

    A fair vote, where there’s a well informed and participating electorate, might be ok, but this is not the reality. Most GSRAs are either uninformed or have only heard GEO’s spiel. It’s hardly a fair situation.

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