State Senate approves bill that would extend collective bargaining rights to research assistants

Loni Hancock

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The California State Senate approved a bill last Thursday that, if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, would grant collective bargaining rights to graduate student research assistants at the state’s public universities.

The bill would extend an 1979 act that gave university employees the right to collectively bargain to apply to graduate student researchers. If it becomes law, the bill could affect over 14,000 graduate student researchers at the University of California. Brown has until the end of September to make a decision on the bill.

According to Hancock, the bill was created to allow graduate student researchers to organize and advocate for issues relating child care, wages, hours and workplace safety. Since union rights were extended to student teaching assistants in 1998, the bill would also allow collective bargaining rights to continue if a graduate student’s employment changes between a TA and graduate student researcher, Hancock added.

“With this bill, when grad students go back and forth between working as (graduate researchers) and (teaching assistants), we won’t have to lose our union rights when we change jobs,” said Charlie Eaton, a doctoral student in sociology and financial secretary of the UC Student-Workers Union, United Auto Workers Local 2865. “Student workers will be in a stronger position to improve quality and affordability at UC.”

The union, which represents over 12,000 student readers, tutors and TAs, supported the bill at the university’s nine undergraduate campuses.

However, the university remains opposed to the bill. According to UC spokesperson Dianne Klein, implementing the bill would cost the university $10 million to $18 million annually without any providing “significant benefit.” She added that extending collective bargaining rights to graduate student researchers would change the relationship between these students and their professors from an academic mentee/mentor relationship to a professional employee/employer relationship.

“(The bill) undermines the university’s competitiveness as a world-renowned research university,” Klein said in an email. “It will increase the number of renowned faculty that will be lost to other institutions that enjoy less restrictive relationships with their graduate students.”

Additionally, according to Klein, if the bill becomes law, it would reduce the number of graduate student researchers at the university by shifting resources from directly funding them to funding costs of collective bargaining and contract administration.

An analysis of the bill by the state Senate Appropriations Committee in January estimates that the initial cost of collective bargaining would top $639,000 for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, with additional administrative costs of approximately $6.5 million annually for staffing requirements at the 10 UC campuses.

Currently, 85 percent of funding for UC graduate student researchers comes nonstate sources, including federal and private grants, and the remaining 15 percent comes from the state general fund, according to the analysis.

Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, said the bill would allow graduate student researchers to fight for similar benefits that she fought for as a member of the student-worker union and teaching assistant at UC Berkeley in the 1980s. At that time, she was pregnant with her daughter, and she said that student health service did not provide any prenatal care.

“That was one thing that motivated me to try to work with the university (to unionize),” she said. “I was required to show up at certain times, I graded papers, had office hours. From my point of view, it was real employment.”