Last year Jennifer Dibbern was pursuing her doctorate and working as an graduate student research assistant at the University of Michigan. She was also openly supportive of the campaign to unionize the university’s graduate student research assistants with the AFT-affiliated Graduate Employee’s Organization (GEO).
Now, after what she says is a case of anti-union discrimination, she has lost her research funding and been kicked out of her academic program.
But she still openly supports the unionization campaign.
Dibbern and other research assistants held a press conference yesterday on the University of Michigan’s main campus in Ann Arbor. Citing an email sent to Dibbern by her faculty mentor shortly after the university publicized rules for an election to bring research assistants into the GEO, they said Dibbern, along with other students, has been discriminated against because of her pro-union activities.
University of Michigan’s graduate students were among the first in the nation to organize, winning a contract in 1975. Research assistants were initially covered by this contract.
Instead of negotiating a second contract, however, the university filed a suit with the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC) arguing that graduate students were not employees and therefore did not have the right to collectively bargain. MERC decided that graduate student instructors and graduate student staff assistants — but not graduate student research assistants — were employees and that they had the right to bargain collectively.
But at a meeting last May, the University of Michigan Board of Regents voted to allow research assistants to unionize. As a result, in the first week in February, the university will argue in favor of research assistant unionization at hearings before an administrative law judge appointed by MERC to decide on the legality of unionization.
At that time of the initial MERC decision, the opponents of unionization argued that research assistants are not employees because their research primarily benefits their education.
The research assistants say they get paid and receive benefits like employees, so they should be considered employees.
The Makinac Center for Public Policy, a right-wing, decidedly anti-union think tank, has fought the unionization effort at each step, first filing a motion with MERC on behalf of a research assistant in an effort to prevent unionization, and then filing another motion to become a party in the case before the MERC-appointed judge in February. MERC rejected the Makinac Center’s bid to be a party in the case.
The administration and some faculty also oppose unionization.
The crux of the opponents argument remains the same: research assistants aren’t employees. But they are also using different, less relevant arguments.
During the aforementioned board of regents meeting, University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman expressed her objections by appealing to fears of nefarious union interlopers, who would for whatever reason attempt to dictate who a student studies with instead of focusing on ensuring that its members aren’t overworked and that they receive fair compensation.
“Decisions about who a student studies with must remain with the two people who care most about the outcome — the student and his or her mentor,” Coleman said.
Noting that graduate student research assistants at competing universities were not unionized, the deans said, “We worry that a [graduate student research assistant] union would make Michigan an outlier when the best and brightest graduate students compare research opportunities, and when we work to recruit excellent research faculty.”
This argument is echoed in this youtube video featuring Melinda Day, the student on whose behalf the Makinac Center filed the motion to prevent unionization.
In the video Day also asserts that having a “union placed between the student and their faculty mentor” would interfere with the ability of the student to obtain her degree.
For the time being it seems as though the exact opposite is true: the lack of union representation and protection for research assistants has cost Jennifer Dibbern her degree — and perhaps even her career.