UM Regents Support Rights of RAs to Organize

In a move that one regent called unprecedented, the University of Michigan board of regents voted at their May 19, 2011 meeting to support the rights of graduate student research assistants to determine for themselves whether to organize and be represented by a labor union.

UM president Mary Sue Coleman spoke out against the resolution, as did regents Andrea Fischer Newman and Andrew Richner, who both voted against it. Both regents expressed dismay that they’d only received notice of the resolution shortly before the meeting.

Coleman read an extensive statement before the vote, telling regents that she feels passionate about the issue personally, and is deeply concerned about it on an institutional level. She sees research assistants as students, not employees. This opinion has been formed from her past experience as a graduate student researcher, she said, as well as her work as a faculty researcher and mentor to graduate student researchers. If RAs choose to organize, it would fundamentally change the relationship between the RAs and faculty, she said. This relationship is key to recruiting both faculty and graduate students, she added.

It’s been a long-standing university policy that graduate student research assistants receive pay and benefit increases that are comparable to increases received by graduate student instructors (GSIs), Coleman said, so that RAs are not at a disadvantage. [GSIs are represented by the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) union. The GEO has been lobbying for RAs to have the right to negotiate terms of their employment.]

Regent Larry Deitch said he didn’t have an opinion about whether RAs should organize or not, but he was confident that they are employees, and as such they have collective bargaining rights. If they organize, that’s their choice, he said. It’s also the right of the university administration to reject any contract that doesn’t protect the qualities that Coleman had articulated, he said.

Richner and Newman both expressed serious concerns about the resolution. Richner called the decision to act against the advice of the president unprecedented, and said he was disappointed that regents didn’t have the opportunity to discuss this important issue. He felt it would have a negative impact on the university’s reputation and on its ability to recruit faculty and students. Newman also objected to the resolution, saying it was a rare occurrence when the majority of the board had such a fundamental disagreement with the administration, and she found it deeply troubling.

A voice vote was taken without further discussion, with regents Newman and Richner dissenting.

This brief was filed from the regents meeting at the Fairlane Center on UM’s Dearborn campus. A more detailed report will follow: [link]