University of California graduate student researchers seek union representation

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In summary

Throughout the University of California, teaching assistants and tutors are unionized, but graduate student researchers are not. That may change soon, after organizers filed more than 10,000 signed union authorization cards with the California Public Employment Relations Board last month.

In one of the largest public employee unionization drives California has seen in more than a decade, some 17,000 University of California graduate student researchers may soon become union members.

Student Researchers United, a committee of graduate student researchers, filed for union accreditation with the California Public Employment Relations Board on May 24. Organizers say they are looking for better wages and health benefits, written protections against harassment and discrimination and a formal grievance process. They are also calling for more legal and political support for foreign students and an end to irregular or late salaries.

“I’m really excited that we can improve our working conditions, balance our work and improve things like fairness as graduate students and create a more democratic workplace,” said Katie Augspurger, organizer of Student Researchers United and biochemistry researcher at the Buchwalter Lab at UC San Francisco.

Currently, graduate student researchers work part-time under the guidance of a faculty member or principal investigator, studying everything from the genetics of aging to the atmosphere of Mars. They earn between $ 1,780 and $ 3,488 per month, according to data from the UC President’s office, as well as a stipend to pay for health care provided by UC. The campaign submitted more than 10,000 signed authorization cards representing approximately 60% of graduate student researchers from the 10 campuses and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

UC spokesperson Erika Cervantes said the university was agnostic about the organizing effort.

“UC appreciates its graduate student researchers and their many contributions to the University,” she said. “The UC does not discourage or encourage unionization. UC supports the right of employees to choose for themselves and to make an informed decision.

This is a change from just a few years ago, when the system opposed an attempt to define graduate student researchers as employees.

Graduate student researchers were not granted the right to unionize until 2017, when the California legislature passed a law allowing them to be considered employees, as teaching assistants and tutors already were.

The UC wrote to lawmakers that the bill could entail “substantial financial costs to the University” and argued that “research is not” work “in the traditional sense of employment in that sense. that it does not represent an exchange of wages for services. “

Without a union contract, graduate student organizers say pay can vary widely within and between departments, and can be affected by whether someone is classified as a “graduate student researcher” or “fellowship”.

Ariana Ornelas Firebaugh, a third-year student in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organizational Biology at UC Riverside, said this year that she was transferred from her post as a graduate student researcher to a scholarship. , a change that was accompanied by a significant drop in Pay.

“I was doing the same job,” Firebaugh said. “My research has never changed. Just my source of funding changed and I was not made aware.

Firebaugh said she took a second job, then a third, and ended up taking personal loans to make ends meet.

“There is no minimum that the CPU sets,” she said. “So, you are not assured that your basic needs will be met when you participate in some type of scholarship. “

Firebaugh turned to United Auto Workers Local 2865, which represents teaching assistants and tutors, for help, and when they couldn’t help her directly, they directed her to the researcher recruitment drive.

The university did not respond to follow-up questions about Firebaugh’s experience, the remuneration of researchers classified as fellows, or the punctuality of remuneration of researchers based on press time.

Student Researchers United hopes to form a separate local union branch within the United Auto Workers. In order for the union to be officially recognized and move on to contract negotiation with UC, signed authorization cards representing more than half of graduate student researchers must first be certified by the California Public Employment Relations Board.

After the cards have been cross-checked with the UC and verified, if the group has not signed cards of more than half of the potential bargaining unit, but still received signatures of at least 30%, then the council will hold an election by secret ballot. If the UC challenges who should be in the unit, the process will take longer, said council general counsel J. Felix De La Torre.

If the researchers are successful, it would be the largest new student worker bargaining unit in the country since at least 2012. The recruitment drive “is in line with the national trend for student workers to seek union representation,” William said. A. Herbert, Director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College.

The union effort comes at a time of social strife within UC: Speakers represented by the University Council-American Federation of Teachers recently voted to authorize a strike, citing concerns about wages and the safety of the union. employment. And last year, police in riot gear confronted teaching assistants who protested for months over a cost-of-living adjustment to cope with rising state rents.

Augspurger said she and other organizers have spent the past year individually contacting colleagues about the union and asking them to sign cards. The pandemic meant that much of the work took place on Zoom rather than in person. But since the union prioritized one-on-one meetings, she said, they didn’t have to send out mass emails that could potentially end up in UC administration and hamper organizing efforts.

De La Torre said he did not have an estimate of how long the verification process would take, in part because of the large number of cards submitted.

“These are the most cards filed in a representation petition in the past 15 to 20 years,” he said. “Or maybe longer.”

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