Michigan Legislature Set To Ban College Athletes From Unionizing [UPDATED]

CREDIT: (AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO)

By Travis Waldron

As the battle to win labor rights for college athletes continues at the federal level, a state lawmaker in Michigan last week introduced legislation that would keep athletes at the state’s top universities from organizing to join unions.

The state House of Representatives quickly approved the legislation during a lame-duck session Tuesday in a party-line vote, with Republicans voting in favor and Democrats voting against it.

Now that it has passed the state House, the state Senate will consider the bill before it adjourns for the year on Dec. 18, according to the Detroit News. The state Senate is overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans, and Michigan has been at the center of efforts to curb unions in recent years. Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed a so-called right-to-work bill into law in 2012.

“I don’t have my finger on the pulse of the legislature,” said Robert McCormick, a Michigan State University law professor who has co-authored a 2006 academic paper about why college athletes should be recognized as employees under federal labor law. “But it wouldn’t surprise me [if it passed].”

The Senate has a crowded end-of-year schedule, though, and if it doesn’t get to the legislation this year it would have to be re-introduced in the next session.

The legislation introduced by state Rep. Al Pscholka (R) would classify collegiate athletes at Michigan’s public universities as students, preventing them from potentially earning public employee status and the collective bargaining rights that come with it.

“Less than 2 percent of men’s basketball and football student-athletes go on to compete professionally in their sport,” Pscholka said in a statement when he introduced the bill, according to MLive.com. “Student-athletes are still students, an playing sports is an extracurricular activity, so the emphases should be placed on the education part of that equation.”

Athletes at Northwestern University, a Big Ten conference counterpart of the University Michigan and Michigan State University, filed a petition to unionize with the Chicago chapter of the National Labor Relations Board in January. The regional director of that chapter approved the petition in March, preliminarily classifying the athletes as employees and granting them union rights for the first time. Northwestern appealed the decision to the full NLRB, which has not yet issued a decision.

Even if the NLRB upholds the regional director’s ruling, though, it would only apply to athletes at private colleges and universities, which are subject to the National Labor Relations Act (like any other private employer). Athletes at public universities are subject to state-level labor laws. To earn union rights themselves, athletes at public schools would have to petition their own state labor boards.

The Michigan legislation, by classifying athletes as students and not employees, would almost certainly prevent any athlete at a public university from being able to do that.

“The players could still petition the state agency for protection, but if they’re defined statutorily as not employees, they’re pretty much out of luck,” McCormick said. “Their only recourse would be a change in the law.”

There has been no effort to unionize Michigan athletes yet, but the University of Michigan’s athletic program has been at the center of controversies that are central to the Northwestern athletes’ desires to organize. Former Michigan football coach Brady Hoke and former athletic director Dave Brandon came under fire for the school’s concussion protocols in the middle of this season after Wolverines quarterback Shane Morris was sent back into a game against Minnesota despite suffering an obvious concussion. Brandon eventually resigned, in part due to the controversy. Hoke was fired at the end of the season, though the concussion issue was merely part of larger struggles within the program that rankled the Michigan fan base.

Though many, including the NCAA’s top officials, have tried to turn the union issue into one about compensation, the NCAA’s unwillingness to deal with concussions was one of the chief concerns raised by Northwestern and the College Athletes Players Association when it filed the union petition.

Republicans in Ohio this year included a resolution that specifies college athletes as students in a larger budget package. But unlike the Michigan legislation, that resolution is largely symbolic. Congressional Republicans filed a brief with the NLRB opposing union rights for college athletes in July. On the other side of the issue, the State Employees Association of North Carolina voted in May to allow athletes from the state’s public universities to join its union individually.

The NLRB has not indicated when it will rule on the Northwestern case, though it is possible it will do so before the end of the year. The results of Northwestern’s union vote will not be known until after the NLRB ruling.

Update:

December 16: A week after the state House passed it, the Michigan state Senate on Tuesday approved legislation banning college athletes at public universities from joining or forming unions, the Associated Press reported. Senate Republicans, who hold a substantial majority over Democrats, passed it mostly along party lines, according to the AP. The final vote was 25–11.

The bill will now go to Gov. Rick Snyder (R), who is expected to sign it into law.