By Rayza Goldsmith, Daily News Editor
Published February 21, 2012
Though it was only introduced a week ago, Senate Bill 971, which would legally classify graduate student research assistants as students, barring them from unionizing, moved out of committee yesterday to the Senate floor to be voted on.
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The Senate Government Operations committee heard testimony from individuals both in favor and opposed to the bill, which was introduced by state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R–Monroe). The Republican-led committee voted 3-2 along party lines to send the bill to the Senate floor.
The hearing and subsequent vote on the bill came in the immediate aftermath of an emergency meeting held by the University’s Board of Regents yesterday morning. At the meeting, the regents voted 6-2 on a resolution expressing their opposition to the bill. The board also instructed Cynthia Wilbanks, the University’s vice president for government relations, to actively lobby against the bill.
The action also occurred amid proceedings before an administrative law judge who is currently hearing testimony from witnesses called by Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Students Against GSRA Unionization, both of whom believe that GSRAs should not be classified as public employees. The administrative judge will submit a recommendation on the employment status of GSRAs to the Michigan Employment Relations Commission next month.
Rackham student Liz Rodrigues, communications chair for the Graduate Employees’ Organization, said she believes Senate Bill 971 is disrupting the ongoing MERC proceedings and said she objects to the subject matter of the legislation.
Rackham student Stephen Raiman, founder of SAGU, disagreed with the Rodriques’ statement that the bill is interfering in the democratic process.
“It’s the legislature’s job to set policy, and it’s MERC’s job to interpret that policy based on law, so it’s absolutely not interfering with MERC’s decision because MERC should be carrying out the law that the legislature writes,” Raiman said.
Among those who testified against the bill were Wilbanks and Rackham student Jeremy Moore, a member of GEO. Engineering Prof. Fawwaz Ulaby and Rackham student Melinda Day testified in support of the bill.
Ulaby, who was invited to testify by Richardville’s staff, said in an interview that GSRAs should not be allowed to unionize given that they are students, not employees.
“The idea of unionizing one segment of this larger class of graduate students is ludicrous,” Ulaby said. “If it applies to GSRAs, it applies to all of them, and by extension, it applies to all students. So the logic there should suggest … that we should unionize all 40,000 students at the University of Michigan.”
Ulaby garnered some attention last month when he started a petition directed at the University’s Board of Regents expressing opposition to the GSRA unionization. Regents Andrea Fischer Newman (R-Ann Arbor) and Andrew Richner (R- Grosse Pointe Park) also signed the petition. Newman and Richner, the only Republicans on the board, also voted against the regents’ resolution at yesterday’s emergency meeting.
In an interview, Day said she was pleased by the result of today’s hearing.
“I think it’s the right thing,” Day said. “I think obviously the situation has indicated a need to clarify the original intent of the Public Employment Relations Act.”
Rodrigues, on the other hand, said she was disappointed that the bill passed through committee, but said it was predictable given its Republican majority.
“Clearly this is a concerning bill, and we are disappointed that it passed and consider it to be an attack on GSRAs’ right to have an election,” she said.
Minority Floor Leader Tupac Hunter (D–Detroit) was one of the two committee members who voted against the bill. He also proposed that the panel wait to vote on the bill until the MERC proceedings have concluded.