Student researchers need a union to win workplace safety

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I’m a graduate student researcher at UC Berkeley, and in May 2017, I was burned in a chemical spill in my thesis lab. I received minimal support from UC Berkeley while seeking treatment for and recovering from my injuries, and in the aftermath of the accident, I was shocked to learn that UC Berkeley would not cover my medical expenses under workers’ compensation because it did not consider me an employee. In the eyes of the UC system, I had none of the rights from which its other workers benefit. Now, I’m changing that for myself and for future generations of student researchers by organizing to form a union with Student Researchers United/UAW. 

The incident was caused by an accidentally-thawed -80 degrees Celsius freezer in my lab, from which I was pulling racks to put into a rescue freezer. Unbeknownst to me, tubes containing the RNA isolation agent Trizol (mostly phenol) were leaking in the thaw. The chemical spilled onto my right hand, wrist and jacket and soaked through my jeans. Phenol burns or inhalation can be fatal when affecting a larger proportion of the body, and it was only luck and my own precautions, such as wearing plenty of clothing, that kept the burns nonthreatening to my life.

Before burning you, phenol numbs your skin, so I didn’t notice the spill initially. It was only after I smelled phenol and saw my jacket disintegrating that I felt a burning sensation on my hand and leg. My labmates rushed into action, ushering me into a shower to rinse my still-burning skin. They called the Office of Environmental Health & Safety, or EH&S, the office responsible for dealing with crises such as this. Shockingly, its emergency hotline rang through to voicemail, and we were left to manage the dangerous situation on our own until it called back several minutes later.

I was in the shower when EH&S arrived to address the chemical spill. It agreed to send me to the Tang Center (the UC Berkeley health center), but it neither arranged emergency transportation nor called ahead to explain the hazard to the Tang Center staff. Despite the fact that I was obviously burned and in extreme distress, I was left to rely on the volunteer efforts of my labmates to continue handling the situation. 

My labmates scrounged up whatever spare clothes they had lying around, and I climbed into my lab manager’s Mini Cooper wearing a too-small dress as a shirt and too-small shorts over my burned leg. Upon arrival, I learned that the medical staff had not been briefed on the chemical that burned me. With their help, we continued to rinse the burn in a shower. From urgent care, I was transferred to Occupational Health, the health office responsible for treating work-related injuries, where I was given ointments and gauze for burn care. I was told my treatment would be covered by UC Berkeley because the injury occurred while I was working my job.

The difficulty I had accessing treatment for a potentially life-threatening burn is unacceptable. Unfortunately, my troubles did not end there. I spent my time in recovery fighting the UC, who ultimately billed me for this debacle.

To my surprise, despite performing work in exchange for compensation, I was not considered an “employee” by the UC, which has insisted for years that students in researcher positions are just students, without workers’ rights. Because I was not technically an employee, I was not supposed to have gone to the Occupational Health clinic, despite instruction from emergency response and health care professionals to do so, nor was I eligible for the workers’ compensation claim my lab manager filed for me. On top of this, UC Berkeley billed me for my medical treatment, claiming that my status as a nonemployee meant my injury was not work-related.

The UC system has long worked to keep student researchers like me from benefiting from workers’ rights. In the 1990s, student researchers and teaching assistants organized together to form a union for all Academic Student Employees. In a series of legal cases, the UC system maintained that neither group of workers were anything but students and that the work performed was more for our own edification than it was value-creating labor for the university. In 1998, a judge ruled that TAs, tutors and readers were employees, enabling the formation of UAW 2865. Student researchers asked the legislature three times in subsequent years to pass legislation to recognize us as employees, and the UC system opposed each time. Finally, in 2017, the California Legislature amended the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act (HEERA) to classify student researchers as UC employees, thus giving us the right to form a union.

In its 2017 letter opposing the amendment, the UC system stated that, “Graduate research is not ‘work’ in the traditional employment sense because ‘that work is conducted as part of their educational pursuits.’ ” The postdocs and staff scientists with whom I work in the lab do real “work,” but because I’m also a student, I don’t have the right to safety from occupational injury. Was I not working when I responded to the equipment failure that led to my burns? My chemical burns certainly turned into an educational experience, but not in the way that I presume the UC system intended.

After a potentially life-threatening injury, the lack of support from UC Berkeley disgusted me. I am fortunate that my advisor is affiliated with an outside institute (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) that reimbursed me for my shoes, jacket and other clothing that EH&S incinerated as well as my medical expenses, but I could not believe UC Berkeley would revoke the financial benefits and health care resources it had initially suggested I would receive.

Student researchers at the UC system work with much more dangerous chemicals and equipment on a daily basis, but it seems that the UC system would rather exploit loopholes in labor law than implement robust safety and treatment policies. I’ve now talked to many graduate students working in these dangerous jobs with no knowledge that they remained unprotected, and have heard more stories of the UC system leaving injured student researchers to coordinate pay for their own healthcare after work-related injuries. Since this incident, I have become deeply committed to forming a student researcher union. I saw firsthand that nobody will hold the UC system accountable to protect student researchers from work-related accidents if we don’t do it ourselves.

Holly Gildea is a graduate student researcher in neuroscience at UC Berkeley.