Now is the time to make change

Veto is a setback for graduate student research assistants

Lu Han/Staff

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation that would have given the University of California’s more than 14,000 graduate student research assistants the same rights that other UC employees have under the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act.  These rights include the freedom to form a union if a majority of research assistants choose to do so.

Brown’s veto is a setback.  But research assistants, including graduate student researchers at UC Berkeley, will carry on this fight for basic rights until we win, because our cause is a just one. In fact, it would not surprise us if management agrees to some improvements for research assistants in coming months because of our efforts to win full rights.  But if the past is any guide, these improvements will be no substitute for full rights and the freedom to form a union.

The legislation to give research assistants full rights — Berkeley state Senator Loni Hancock’s Senate Bill 259 — enjoyed widespread support from the UC Student Association, the Graduate Assembly, the Council of UC Faculty Associations, including the Berkeley Faculty Association, and the UC Union Coalition.  The bill was sponsored by the UC Student-Workers Union — UAW 2865, which represents the university’s 12,000 GSIs, teaching assistants, readers and tutors, as well as UAW 5810, the union of 6,000 UC postdoctoral scholars.   The bill passed both houses of the state Legislature.  The only opposition to the bill noted in legislative analysis was from top UC management.

UC executives disregarded basic standards of academic integrity by making false claims that contradict publicly available evidence about full rights for research assistants. In fact, 85 percent of the funding for research assistants comes from federal and private grants and contracts, not state funds.

GSIs, TAs, readers and tutors already have the freedom to form a union under the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act and have done so.  When we are employed as research assistants, we lose rights and benefits we have as GSIs, including child care subsidies, family medical leave, adequate health and safety protections, arbitration procedures, etc.  Most important, we lose collective strength, backed by labor law, to bargain over our wages, hours and working conditions.

After years of public pressure, UC executives recently acknowledged the virtue of union rights by adopting an official position on them:  “UC does not support nor discourage unionization.  UC supports employees’ rights to determine for themselves whether or not they think unionization is beneficial.”

Instead of complying with their own policy, UC executives not only lobbied against the bill, but some campus graduate deans, including UC Berkeley Graduate Division Dean Andrew Szeri, used university resources to send one-sided emails to research assistants threatening them with job loss, wage cuts and hour cuts as a result of the legislation.  These coercive threats are not factual and would be illegal if research assistants had full rights from the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act, as provided by SB 259. In fact, Szeri admitted in a meeting with five graduate students on Sept. 5, “I would not publish such a letter if SB 259 were the law of the land.”

What happened to the university’s policy about the right to self-determination when it comes to us, as research assistants? Instead, top UC management argued that they had determined that the freedom to form a union was not in our best interest as research assistants.

Contrary to their own policy, UC executives are likely to continue their campaign to discourage unionization by research assistants. In addition to the threats, they may try buy us off by making promises, such as child care subsidies, improved leave policies and some of the other benefits we have when we’re employed as GSIs with union rights.  UC executives may also try co-opt our student governments by offering more “input” for the Graduate Assembly and other groups, without the full rights of collective bargaining.  We should celebrate these victories when they come, but carry on the fight for full rights.

In his veto message last week, Gov. Brown stated, “given the current stresses facing the state and its universities, now is not the time” to give research assistants full rights.  But two of the most severe “stresses” facing the university are the use of tuition hikes and the use of state funding for excessive UC executive compensation — practices that research assistants could better help to check if we had full rights.

This is why we will reintroduce a bill for full research assistant rights in the next legislative session.  We call upon UC executives to abandon their opposition to our freedom to form a union and to urge Brown to sign the legislation. Now is the time.

Charlie Eaton is a doctoral student in sociology and the financial secretary of the UC Student-Workers Union — UAW Local 2865.

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