Governor vetoes bill giving collective bargaining rights to student researchers

On September 27th, students and workers protested for better rights for workers on campus, as well as, encouraging UC support of the bill SB 259.
Kayla Shapiro/File
On September 27th, students and workers protested for better rights for workers on campus, as well as, encouraging UC support of the bill SB 259.

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On Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have allowed graduate student researchers collective bargaining rights at California’s public universities.

California State Senate Bill 259 would have extended a 1979 act that gave university employees the right to collectively bargain to apply to graduate student researchers. It would have affected more than 14,000 graduate student researchers at the University of California.

“Collaboration between faculty and research assistants is an integral part of their training and education,” Brown’s Sept. 30 veto message reads. “It is rare that this relationship is subject to collective bargaining at other universities.”

Brown’s decision follows opposing efforts by UC administrators urging him to veto the bill and by UC graduate students pushing for his signature.

According to Bahar Navab, president of the campus Graduate Assembly which supported the bill, students and members of the UC community signed a petition criticizing the UC administration for pushing for the veto and using “questionable justifications” for their stance against the bill. Navab called the veto “unfortunate.”

“Governor Brown had no real reason to veto this bill and honestly, it is demoralizing,” Navab said in an email. “Many grad students are working on the Governor’s Prop. 30 and yet he doesn’t stand up for their rights as graduate workers.”

Prop. 30 would increase the tax rate on the wealthiest Californians and raise the state sales tax by a quarter percent over the next four years.

The university has opposed SB 259 since January and penned a letter to Brown dated Aug. 31 asking him to veto the bill. The letter said the bill would change the mentor-mentee relationship between faculty and GSRs to an employer-employee relationship, increase the time required for students to complete their degrees and impose an administrative cost on the university of between $10 million and $18 million to cover the initial setup of the union systemwide.

“It would have placed the UC in a competitive disadvantage with other research institutions,” said UC spokesperson Dianne Klein. “Other research institutions don’t have this.”

In March, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a bill barring graduate student research assistants from unionizing at the state’s public universities, despite the University of Michigan Board of Regents’ vote to oppose it in February.

According to Rick Fitzgerald, University of Michigan spokesperson, GSIs and graduate student administrative assistants within the university are allowed to unionize, but graduate student research assistants are not.

Still, many UC Berkeley graduate students are disappointed in Brown’s veto and will continue to push for the rights of researchers to unionize.

“When I work as a GSR for the university, I can be hired; I can be fired,” said Charlie Eaton, a UC Berkeley graduate student and financial secretary of the student-workers union, UAW Local 2865. “I am an employee, just like anyone else … GSRs are workers, and we should be able to decide for ourselves if we want to form a union.”

Contact Gladys Rosario at [email protected]

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  • Do these students plan on completing their education and moving on to professional careers one day? I ask that question because they seem to me far more interested in becoming union workers and playing union politics.

    • guest

      Why should it be any less legitimate to unionize if the person only stays in the job for 3-4 years?

      • What’s the point, unless your desire is to be suckered into paying into a pension plan for which you will never receive a penny?

  • Owen

    I never really understand why there is a need by governments or bigger institutions to not allow any group to have a union. Unions have been around forever and give power to the people that are working. It doesn’t shield all workers from being fired or laid off, but denying anyone the right to bargain collectively infringes on people’s rights and freedoms. I just voted on a dispute about this over at eQuibbly.com actually. This seems to be in the news everywhere.

  • Calipenguin

    If student researchers want to change their status from “student” to “employee” by unionizing, then they should also accept the possibility of a “layoff” in which lack of funds or shoddy research results in immediate dismissal from the university or transfer to an alternate work site such as U.C. Merced.

    • guest

      As pointed out in the article, GSRs can be already be hired or fired for the reasons. Losing a paid researcher position doesn’t equal dismissal as a student (why would the university dismiss someone they are collecting tuition from?). Many graduate students do not have paid research position, but instead work as a GSI or find some other way to pay their tuition and living expenses.

    • Alf

      The university can and does dismiss graduate students when their academic work is unsatisfactory. It can does cancel GSR contracts when funding runs short. I don’t see your point.