Blogbaby episode four: Pete Larson on Graduate Student Research Assistant Unionization

[While I’m busy scrubbing poop from diapers and other articles of clothing, several friends have been kind enough to provide content for this site, through a program we’re calling Blogbaby. Today’s contribution comes from my friend and former bandmate Pete Larson.]

Mark has been on to me for several weeks to write something for his blog. So far, I’ve started composing no fewer than five posts. One day I’ll finish the other four. I can post any nonsensical thought on my own blog, but publishing nonsense on someone else’s blog (particularly Mr. Maynard’s) is another matter… So, Mark will just have to wait for my analysis of his expanding waistline, and my fantastic report linking Japanese porn to the Republican Party’s current assault on reproductive rights, for just a little while longer. Here, in the meantime, are my thoughts on the unionization of Graduate Student Research Assistants (GSRAs) at University of Michigan.

Currently, the union which represents Graduate Student Instructors (GSIs) at the UM, GEO, is actively attempting to bring Graduate Student Research Assistants (GSRAs) into the union. GEO can claim as a success, the excellent funding package that graduate student employees currently receive, which includes a living wage, and the same health insurance package that all UM employees receive. The health insurance benefits alone complete a package that far exceeds that offered by other comparable institutions. I personally receive this package. No other school I applied to (back when I was applying) offered anything close.

When the University has, in the past, sought to reduce benefits, GEO has lobbied successfully to maintain them. GSRAs are able to appeal to GEO for advocacy, and currently enjoy the same minimum benefits as Graduate Student Instructors, but do not have any official union representation. It is worth noting, that though the University grants GSRAs the same benefits as GSIs, the University is not under any obligation to do so.

For GSRAs to enter the union, the entire body of GSRAs must vote to do so, which seems like a simple process. Allowing a vote, however, depends on the decisions of a state body, the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC), along with the final decision of a state judge. This is where things get hairy. GSIs are considered employees of the University and thus state employees under a decision from the early 1980’s which allowed them to unionize as any body of state employees can.

GSRAs at that time were not considered state employees, though, as they were thought to prioritize work on their own research over that which the University was pursuing. At the time, there were very few GSRAs and many GSIs. The situation has changed dramatically since that time. The University of Michigan is now a research behemoth producing work that largely depends on the work of its expanding army of graduate students. There are now more than 2000 GSRAs on campus.

What would seem to be a simple issue to be resolved in a summer, has turned into a long and drawn out legal battle. The right wing think tank, the Mackinac Center, has proactively sought to block the vote to include GSRAs into the union. I will fully admit that I loathe the Mackinac Center and have written about them here and here. The Mackinac Center has enlisted several GSRAs who oppose the movement to speak (there is opposition within the GSRA community) and actively comment to local radio and newspapers that the unionization of GSRAs will lead to the collapse of the first world economy, and, more importantly, the local economy of the University of Michigan.

Our own right wing (and very anti-union) attorney general Bill Schuette has also come out to oppose the movement (when not moving to deal with the imagined rise of Sharia law in Michigan), following the lead of conservative anti-union politicians like Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin.

MERC has ruled the movements of both the Mackinac Center and the Attorney General as irrelevant and inadmissible in discussions of whether GSRAs should unionize or not. MERC recently moved to let the issue move to the courts, and let a judge decide whether the issue can be put to a vote or not.

I’m not advocating one way or the other in this post. I’ve got my opinion on unionization, and you surly have your own. What I think is important to note, however, is that the prospect of GSRA unionization has elicited such an intense reaction from conservative political figures and extreme right wing groups such as the Mackinac Center. That says to me that there’s something important at stake here. So, while there are those who would tell you that this subject is not of relevance to the State of Michigan, or, for that matter, to those outside the snobbish ivory towers of the University of Michigan, I’d suggest this should matter to everyone. There are wider implications here, and they, at least to me, point toward the systematic destruction of any type of union, be they for plumbers, farm workers or privileged UMich graduate students (assuming that one buys into that image).

For a much different perspective on the pending unionization of GSRAs at the University, I’d suggest checking out this letter to from a U-M professor.

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  1. K2
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    As these grad student researchers already have decent pay and benefits, is the main issue here the hours that they work. As I know several student researchers that work 60+ hours a week at the U, I’m guessing that’s the issue. If so, I can certainly see why faculty would push back. If hours were regulated, productivity would drop, meaning fewer publications.

  2. Eel
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    As they already have decent pay and benefits (health insurance), what’s the impetus behind unionization? Is it just so that they have a defined process whereby to address grievances?

  3. Posted December 20, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    As I stated, the University is under no obligation to provide the same level of benefits to GSRAs as it does to GSIs. It is the case, even, to my knowledge, the GSRAs are sometimes paid slightly less than GSIs.

    And yes, as far as I know, the University is also under no obligation to hear or recognize grievances brought through GEO on behalf of GSRAs.

    The issue of workload is a rather moot one. No one realistically believes that the inclusion of GSRAs into GEO will affect research output. It is worth mentioning that most of the federal grant, research and training programs also require only 20 hours a week, though graduate students are nonetheless productive.

    Understand that I am not a spokesperson for GEO. Perhaps one can weigh in here.

    And Mark, I appreciate your inclusion of the words from the UM faculty member, but understand that what the faculty wants is rather irrelevant. I am positive that the leadership of GM can present a number of arguments as to why unions are a bad thing. I don’t think that you (Mark) could make an argument that the arguments of the GM leadership are in any way relevant to whether workers choose to unionize or not.

    Remember, the main point here is that there are players out there that are seeking to prevent the issue from being brought up to a vote by GSRAs. Ultimately, it is up to them. I think this point is important.

  4. TeacherPatti
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Even if they are being paid well today, there is no guarantee that you will be paid well tomorrow…unless you have a union. (And even then I guess there is no guarantee but hell, I can’t guarantee the sun will rise tomorrow…but I’d still rather have a union behind me than not)

  5. anonymous
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    This may not be the right thread in which to mention this, but many seem to think that the higher ed bubble is getting ready to burst in America. This, from what I gather, would happen for one of a few different reasons.

    1. People will start to think that the increased earning potential that comes with a college degree (which has been shrinking) isn’t worth the enormous debt that getting such a degree requires.

    2. People will realize that knowledge and a degree are two totally different things, and seek the knowledge elsewhere, for less money.

    3. People will start to realize that there just aren’t jobs waiting for them after graduation. (Some people will want a PhD in neuroscience regardless of market dynamics. Others, however, will plan accordingly and do something else with their lives.)

    4. The government will stop offering Pell grants and other forms of tuition assistance.

    Regardless of how it comes about, this would mean fewer low-wage student researchers to feed the engine that is the University.

  6. Posted December 20, 2011 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    The higher ed bubble may burst (assuming there really is one) though such a bursting would likely not affect an institution such as the University of Michigan. I’m afraid I don’t understand your point at all.

    Smaller schools like EMU, however, would have much to be concerned about.

    Regardless, it is my opinion that the points you bring up have little to do with the issue at hand.

  7. EOS
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    GSRA’s and Post Docs are the most exploited group on college campuses. Early in their career, they are assigned a mentor who controls their destiny. 60 hour work weeks are very common in the biomedical sciences, but worse yet, they are coerced into publishing fraudulent data to support their mentor’s previously published papers. If they refuse, they crash and burn out of the PhD program if still a grad student, or if they are a post doc, then they’ll never get a good reference that will lead to a real job in their chosen field.

    I know a Post Doc who wrote all the grant applications, performed all the experiments, and wrote all the papers for a full professor at U of M. After 6 years, he couldn’t figure out why he didn’t get a single job offer from the many interviews he had. Seems his mentor was giving him horrible references so that he would be forced to stay in his lab and continue doing all the work that was bringing his boss accolades. The department secretary, who typed the letters, gave a copy of one to the Post Doc, who had been assured by the Professor that he was writing superlative recommendations. The Post Doc went to the provost who refused to get involved. He then confronted his professor, who threatened to black ball him so that he would spend the rest of his career managing a 7-eleven. The Post Doc was allowed to accept another job only after securing an additional 500K in grants for his mentor.

    I’ve seen grad students who were forced to babysit for their mentor’s kids, do science fair projects for their kids, and cut their professor’s lawns during the summers. I’ve seen Post Docs who were forced to work for years without pay. The system is designed for this type of exploitation, is certainly not going to be changed by the professors, and probably won’t be helped by unions. There is an unlimited supply of grad students trying to get into PhD programs in the biomedical sciences, even though less than 5% of those who do get the degree actually end up in a tenured track research position.

  8. kjc
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    on the up side, 7-elevens are going in everywhere.

  9. Tommy
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    EOS – who says that the ‘U’ is full of liberals? What you are describing is someone who would make a good republican. Exploit those who work under you because it benefits you. Unionizing has always been a means to right a wrong; some have outlived their usefulness.

  10. Mr. X
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    EOS, I know that you’re not a big believer in unions. (I believe, in another thread, you indicated that you felt that unlimited corporate spending on U.S. elections was a good thing for democracy in that it somehow counteracts the influence of unions, right?) But, at the same time, you acknowledge that people are being taken advantage of by the current system. And it sounds as though you’re passionate about it. You personally know people that were treated poorly. As that’s the case, if you don’t mind my asking, why aren’t you supportive of efforts to allow these individuals to bargain collectively? Why shouldn’t these friends of yours have an opportunity to have their voices heard? What are you afraid of?

  11. EOS
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    Unions take away individuality. Pay, promotions, and job duties are negotiated for the collective and don’t take into consideration individual strengths and abilities. They undermine excellence by punishing those individuals who exceed the minimum requirements of a job.

  12. Edward
    Posted December 21, 2011 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Where did you hear that, EOS? A long time ago, I was the member of a union, and that’s certainly not the way things worked for me. I was still promoted for having done a good job, and given raises.

  13. Posted December 21, 2011 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    I think I know hundreds, if not thousands more research assistants, PhD students, post-docs and university faculty than EOS.

    While there are certainly problems and horror stories, mostly research is a boring and uneventful affair. And yes, I know several people who fell out of favor with their advisors and still got good jobs.

    The problems, though, justify the existence of a union and a method of allowing grievances to be brought against abusive faculty.

    And, contrary to what EOS believes, a union such as GEO hardly prevents anyone from succeeding.

  14. Meta
    Posted March 2, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    From today’s

    State Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said he and another Democratic lawmaker were prohibited from speaking on the floor of the state House today against a bill that would prevent graduate research assistants at public universities in Michigan from forming unions.

    Rather than hearing any objections to the legislation, Irwin said the Republican-led House “railroaded through the bill” on a partisan vote of 62-45.

    “When the bill came up, I walked up to the front expecting to speak, and when I got up to the front, my leadership informed me they weren’t going to be taking any comments,” Irwin said, adding state Rep. Vicki Barnett, D-Farmington Hills, also wanted to speak.
    “Vicki was standing at the podium with a piece of paper on the podium, ready to be recognized,” Irwin said. “It was clear we were lining up to talk about this issue.”

    Ari Adler, press secretary for House Speaker Jase Bolger, said in order for somebody to speak, they have to be recognized, and he’s not aware either lawmaker asked to be recognized. He noted Speaker Pro Tem John Walsh, R-Livonia, was in charge of the floor at the time.

    Irwin said he made the request to speak through his party’s leadership.

    “And my understanding is that request was passed along to the Republican leadership and they said there was going to be no debate on this item,” he said.

    Senate Bill 971, which legally classifies graduate student research assistants as students and bars them from unionizing, is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, a Republican from Monroe who represents a portion of Washtenaw County.
    “Senate Bill 971 is about protecting the students from additional fees or dues they would have to pay to the unions,” Adler said. “And it is about protecting the integrity of the relationship between graduate research assistants and the faculty.”
    Irwin called that laughable.

    “For them to say they’re fighting on behalf of the interests of students in the state of Michigan is just hilarious after what they’ve done, cutting funding for universities by 15 percent,” he said. “What the Republicans have done is to vastly increase tuition for our students.”

    Irwin called today’s vote to strip graduate research assistants of their right to organize as university workers “pure hypocrisy.” The GOP-backed measure comes as University of Michigan graduate student research assistants attempt to unionize.

    Irwin said Republicans talk a good game about “small government,” but they were happy to use the “heavy hand of state government to pursue their political goal of squashing unions.”


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