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Union Yet? Worker Protections Elude Graduate Student Researchers

October 14, 2016
by Alexandria Fuller
Graduation cap on top of a pile of money

Nearly 15,000 graduate teaching assistants, student instructors, and readers in the UC system are full-fledged members of the labor movement. But UC graduate student researchers (GSRs) are the only student employees who are not protected by the UC Student Workers Union contract, and are not eligible to negotiate for better working conditions.

Teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate student instructors (GSIs) assist faculty, prepare lesson plans, and teach in lab and classroom settings. Readers primarily tutor students and aid faculty. Unlike TAs and GSIs, GSRs work mostly in labs and assist faculty. But since their studies are often related to their education, they are viewed primarily as students, rather than workers. Union leaders argue that researchers should have the same rights as any other student workers on campus.

“The idea is that when you’re doing research you’re creating knowledge that will hopefully benefit society. To say that someone who is doing that is not a worker is pretty outrageous to me,” says Erin Ellison, the statewide representative of UAW Local 2865.

Although researchers can’t negotiate their terms and work under a union contract, they can join the union and attend meetings. The UC Student Workers Union, which represents teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, and readers at all UC campuses except UCSF, has been fighting for years to bring graduate research assistants into the fold.

Now the union may have fuel to reignite that campaign. In a recent decision involving student workers at Columbia University, the National Labor Relations Board extended rights for all students to organize at private universities. The board ruled that all graduate student workers, including researchers, at private universities are workers as long as they are being paid by the institution. Although the ruling had no direct impact at public universities, labor advocates nevertheless hope the decision will buttress their campaign at UC.

“The NLRB gives us a lot of strong language to bring to both the state capital and UC Berkeley, the entire UC system, to make the argument that we are workers,” says Maggie Downey, Local 2865 unit chair and an organizer in the research assistant campaign.

Admini­stra­tors at UC argue that research assist­ants are pri­mar­ily doing work for edu­ca­tional pur­poses and that form­ing a union could harm rela­tion­ships between the students and faculty.

Language, perhaps, but not law. In California, the state Public Employment Relations Board, not the NLRB, sets the ground rules for public employees. The state Legislature passed a law in 1979 that extended collective bargaining to teaching assistants, readers, and tutors. After years of fighting, UC graduate student instructors also won bargaining rights in 1999.

Despite this exception in the law, California schools can voluntarily grant graduate researchers the right to unionize. The California State University system has already done so.

Administrators at UC, however, argue that research assistants are primarily doing work for educational purposes and that forming a union could harm relationships between the students and faculty.

“The University of California is concerned that unionization of research assistants would harm the critical mentor-mentee relationships between faculty and graduate students that are essential to graduate education,” Claire Doan, a UC spokesperson, said by email in response to questions.

Some graduate researchers refute those claims. They insist that their duties are more than an educational experience.

Organizers say pro­tec­tions are neces­sary, pointing to instances of sexual harass­ment and work-related injuries.

Downey, who is also a graduate student researcher at Berkeley, says she’s doing work that is not contributing to her educational goal of completing her dissertation.

“It’s a job to pay my way through school and I think it should be protected labor,” she says.

And worker protections are necessary, say organizers. They point to instances of sexual harassment in the lab involving graduate researchers and work-related injuries from pipetting for long hours. Although they can receive workers comp, labor leaders argue that if the students were eligible for representation by a union, they could fight to challenge these cases and work to enforce better healthcare and working conditions without limitations on services and prescriptions.

In 2014, the union agreed to a four-year contract with UC management that granted the student workers class-size provisions, gender-neutral bathrooms, rights for undocumented workers, expanded paid leave for parent workers, and a 50 percent increase in a subsidy for child care.

Some of those benefits have been extended to graduate student researchers, such as subsidized child care and fee remissions for those working 10 to 20 hours a week. But some GSRs claim that administrators are keeping costs down by limiting students to working fewer than 10 paid hours, while their workloads stay constant or even increase.

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