Student workers deserve more complete picture of union benefits

William Bennett/Staff

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As current and former Graduate Student Researchers (GSRs) at UC Berkeley, we are replying to a recent campuswide email from the UC administration regarding GSR unionization. Sent by Graduate Division Dean Fiona Doyle on Oct. 23, with the subject “Message Regarding Union Representation for Graduate Student Researchers,” the message responded to the recent passage of SB 201, a bill granting Graduate Student Researchers in California the right to unionize. Dean Doyle wrote that “UC supports your right to decide for yourself whether unionization is beneficial for you. That choice is yours. UC believes this choice should be well informed.”

But does the UC administration really support our right as GSRs to decide for ourselves whether we want to form a union? And do the administration’s emails give us a complete picture of what GSR unionization means?

The UC administration has lobbied against GSR/RA collective bargaining rights in the California State Legislature for 35 years. This past legislative session, the UC administration formally opposed SB 201. The UC administration has shown that it never wanted GSRs to have the right to choose unionization in the first place.

But now, GSRs do have the right to decide for ourselves whether we want to unionize. We agree with the email’s message that GSRs should be “well informed” about this decision, so here are some things you should know about the gains that members of the academic community have won by deciding to unionize.

Throughout the UC system, GSIs, readers and tutors already have a union — the UC Student-Workers Union, or UAW 2865 — which formed in 2000. Through our union, we have made significant improvements to our working conditions and the quality of education at the UC, including a 17 percent compounded wage increase over the past 4 years.

Our colleagues at the University of Washington, University of Connecticut, New York University and several other colleges and universities have formed unions that include GSRs/RAs and other student-workers. At the University of Washington, the GSI/GSR union protected the student-worker health plan from cuts, even as costs increased by more than 50 percent.

The UC postdoctoral researchers have their own union, which won an average salary increase of more than 25 percent since its first collective contract in 2010. All of these unions, at the UC and around the country, have won significant wage increases, health benefits and other rights and protections; this information should go into any “well informed decision.”

But this wasn’t the kind of information we found in Dean Doyle’s email, which left us wondering whether the UC administration really wants us to be well-informed about what unionization would mean for GSRs. Although Dean Doyle’s email is ostensibly neutral, it contains numerous not-so-subtle anti-union implications.

Administration’s message: “Read carefully before you sign anything.” Implication: You may be tricked into voting for unionization. Reality: For your unionization vote to count under California law, you must sign a card that clearly states that you want to form a union as a GSR. We agree that nothing should be signed without being read first, and you will definitely know when presented the opportunity to vote to unionize.

Administration’s message: “You would not be able to negotiate with your supervisors/principal investigators.” Implication: a collective bargaining agreement will be more restrictive than our current terms of at-will employment. Reality: Collective bargaining agreements covering GSRs/RAs at other universities allow for individual flexibility on working hours and other conditions where appropriate. Furthermore, when was the last time you negotiated a raise with your research supervisor? What about health benefits? And do you really feel empowered to negotiate on an even footing with a supervisor who writes your letters of recommendation and influences your future employment? Collective bargaining between our GSI union and the UC administration equalizes those power dynamics, which enabled a 17 percent compounded pay increase over 4 years and zero-premium health insurance for GSIs. There is no reason this shouldn’t apply to GSRs. In fact, in its letter to the California state legislature opposing SB 201, the UC administration said as much itself, estimating a 3-5 percent pay increase for GSRs as a result of collective bargaining.

Administration Message: “You have the right to be free from interruption while you are working. You have the right to protect yourself against aggressive behavior.” Implication: Union organizers will be harassing, intimidating and interrupting student-workers during the unionization campaign. Reality: Our union’s volunteer student organizers are respectful of you, your time and your occasional need for a doughnut and coffee. We are genuinely concerned about your working conditions, so we’ll ask you how you’re doing now and then, but forcing you into a conversation when you desperately want to get back to work is a lousy way to win your support.

The evidence is clear: There’s more to the story than what Dean Doyle and other UC campuses sent in their emails. GSRs and RAs who have unionized at other research universities have won important protections and benefits, including wage increases, appointment security and protections against harassment and discrimination, while continuing their stellar academic work. Right here in California, UC GSIs, readers and tutors have won many of those same rights through their union, UAW 2865, but until now, GSRs have been left out. The UC administration should support an open discussion about our new right to unionize, but instead, they have begun a campaign of misinformation. As students and as workers, we deserve better.

Sam Kohn (physics), Henry Jiang (chemistry) and Alex Bush (film and media) are members of the UC Student-Workers Union.