OPINION: Fears about University of Michigan graduate students unionizing lack credibility
The University of Michigan Board of Regents’ May 19 decision to allow graduate student research assistants the right to decide whether to form a union was met with derision in this space in a June 30 column by Thomas Zurbuchen, the university's College of Engineering Associate Dean for Entrepreneurial Programs. As graduate students and a resident in the University of Michigan Health System - all in highly ranked departments - we find Zurbuchen’s fears exaggerated and that his position lacks credibility.
One of us is a GSRA who supports unionization, and the other two of us are members of the Graduate Employee Organization and the House Officers’ Association, respectively, which are both long-standing university student employee unions. These unions represent individuals very similar to GSRAs, and their history shows that no harm will come to U-M through GSRA unionization..
Zurbuchen’s unease with unions revolves around two ideas -- that unions destroy the educational process, and that they would reduce the university’s ability to compete for top students and faculty members. Both of these vague fears are unfounded.
First, Zurbuchen believes that unions would insert some destructive phantom “third party” into the system and destroy the educational process. Few things could be further from the truth. The union isn’t some mysterious alien force; it’s merely an organization made of the same talented hard-working graduate students with whom he collaborates every day. Both the HOA and GEO are horizontal, democratic, participatory unions. No “third-party” union bosses call the shots here, only members and their democratically selected local leaders. Like Zurbuchen, our members deeply value the student-mentorship relationship with professors and attending physicians. However, they find that unionization helps strengthen that relationship by providing an enforcement mechanism, which currently does not exist, to remind mentors of their obligations.
Through collective bargaining, graduate student employees take the responsibility to work together and present their interests to the university, while the university presents its own priorities. The two sides work together to achieve a mutually acceptable agreement.
Under the current GEO contract, the university has broad rights in matters of academic judgment and retains significant flexibility in hiring decisions, which should negate some of the fear that Zurbuchen raises about unions snuffing out talent. In return, GEO has negotiated a comprehensive job-posting website, which helps graduate students find jobs --- and also helps departments and managers select from a wider variety of talented students.
Zurbuchen says that he and his colleagues love the great collaboration at Michigan. We agree and note that unions help foster mutual problem solving. One aspect of successful collective bargaining is formal collaboration to improve the working environment.
Last spring, for example, GEO and academic human resources worked closely together to develop a comprehensive accommodations policy to vastly improve classroom access and effectiveness for GSIs with disabilities. Past collaboration has focused on improving teacher training, while the HOA has worked tirelessly to improve both training and safety conditions on medical campus.
Even GEO’s grievance procedure stresses close collaboration between employees and the employer by incorporating informal meetings early in the process and attempting to avoid costly binding arbitration if at all possible. As a result, the vast majority of all grievances are solved early in the process, yet provide legally enforceable protection that GSRAs currently lack.
Now we turn to Zurbuchen’s second point, that unionization of graduate employees would hurt the ability to attract talented students and faculty. If this were true, surely it would have occurred with the advent of GEO and the HOA.
Needless to say, the brain drain hasn’t happened. The university still routinely recruits the best and brightest professors in the humanities, social sciences and hard sciences. Departments regularly place among the top five or 10 universities in all the major rankings.
Talented graduate students continue to flock to the university, drawn in part by the competitive salary and health care packages negotiated through GEO. In fact, graduate students routinely say that a strong union is one reason they decided to attend Michigan.
The story at the University of Michigan Health System reads similarly. House Officers have been unionized since 1971, yet Michigan has only solidified its reputation among the leaders and best in the quality of our residency programs, providing superior patient care and routinely making innovative research breakthroughs in both medical science and clinical practice. Michigan’s medical school continues to successfully recruit the best professors and residents - indeed, the medical school’s own website mentions the HOA as a selling point for potential applicants to its residency program.
In short, throughout the modern history of the University of Michigan, unions have added value to the university community. They do this by improving working conditions, helping attract strong students and giving graduate students employees and medical residents the right and responsibility to work with the administration as an equal partner. We applaud the regents for giving GSRAs the right to self-determination and we encourage GSRAs to vote to form a union and join us as full members of the university community.
Patrick O’Mahen is a PhD. student in political science and a GSI. He is also the former communications chair and bargaining team member for GEO. Andrea Jokisaari is a PhD. student in Materials Science and a GSRA. Dr. Justin Junn is a second-year resident in the Obstetrics-Gynecology Program. He sits on the Executive Board of the House Officers Association.