SB 201 aims to extend collective bargaining to student research assistants

Nancy Skinner's Office/Courtesy

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Fourteen thousand university student research assistants do not have the same right to collective bargaining as other student employees, including teaching assistants, readers and tutors.

California State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, a campus alumna, is trying to change this discrepancy with Senate Bill 201, a bill Skinner authored that would expand the definition of employee under the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act to include research assistants, thereby giving research assistants the right to unionize.

If SB 201, which passed in the California State Senate on Tuesday, becomes law, collective bargaining rights could open the door to new resources for research assistants.

“While UC teaching assistants and other graduate student employees have had labor protections for years, research assistants (RAs) have been left in the cold,” Skinner stated in a emailed press release from her office.

According to UAW Local 2865 member Erik Green, the right to unionize could allow research assistants to bargain for better worker protections in workplace safety and childcare issues.

Green said he also believes these protections could be relevant to sexual assault cases involving research assistants.

In March, former campus research assistant Joanna Ong filed a lawsuit against campus professor emeritus John Searle, alleging Searle sexually assaulted her and continued to harass her while she was his employee.

Additionally, for graduate students moving between teaching assistant and research assistant positions, SB 201 would provide more “consistency and continuity in terms of wage benefits and working conditions,” according to UAW labor advocate Mary Ann Massenburg.

SB 201 comes in the wake of a 2016 decision by the National Labor Relations Board, which ruled that research assistants and teaching assistants at private universities nationwide have the right to collective bargaining.

In addition, student research assistants at California State University campuses have had the right to collectively bargain for a decade, according to the press release. Massenburg said these precedents made the bill’s passage more likely.

Ralph Washington Jr., president of the University of California Student Association, said SB 201 would “create a more level playing field” and “compensate for differences in positional power that can prevent student research assistants from getting what they deserve for their labor.”

California Labor Federation legislative advocate Michael Young wrote research assistants “do much of the cutting-edge research that … makes UC a world-renowned research university” in a letter of support for SB 201 addressed to California State Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de León. Young added in the letter that SB 201 gives research assistants the same collective bargaining rights that other university student employees already have.

University of California Office of the President spokesperson Stephanie Beechem stated in an email that although the university has not yet taken a position on SB 201, university representatives are “closely reviewing the bill and are engaged in ongoing discussion with Senator Skinner.”

Despite previous university opposition to the bill, Green said he doesn’t think unions have to be seen as antagonistic toward the university.

“(Unions) can be for the benefit of everybody,” Green said.

Contact Madeline Wells at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @madwellsdc.