A union for student researchers will make us safer

Photo of Yuanqui Lyu

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For international researchers like myself, a lack of workplace protection, an arguably important basic need, leaves us doubly vulnerable. 

Walking the quiet halls of Birge Hall, you could easily assume that nothing interesting is happening behind our closed doors. Despite common misconceptions, however, working as a Student Researcher can be exciting and sometimes even dangerous.  

We are breaking new ground and pushing the limits every day. As a Graduate Student Researcher focused on experimental physics, I routinely work with high-powered lasers, dangerous chemicals, cryogenics and high voltage electricity to conduct experiments that push the frontiers of our understanding. 

Recently, we’ve been breaking ground in areas beyond just science as well. 

Earlier this month, I voted with thousands of my peers to authorize a strike in the event that the UC system continues to deny recognition to our new union, Student Researchers United-UAW. In doing so, I am pushing new frontiers in terms of demanding a better workplace.

Don’t get me wrong — I love my job. 

Together, with my peers and mentors, I get to explore emergent properties in many-body systems, such as superconductors, exotic magnets and novel defects, which not only provide insights into the fundamentals of physics but might also bring about revolutions in everyday technology related to communication and sensing. 

It is because I love my job that I voted to authorize a strike. 

The UC system is refusing to make much-needed changes to our working conditions. For example, there is little assurance or policy that international students will not be subject to arbitrary or unfair dismissal, or that women and parents won’t be unfairly forced out of the academic pipeline. On top of this, the school has been ignoring the democratic decision made by thousands of Student Researchers to form a union.

I made this decision based on my experiences as an international researcher. Five years ago, I left China to forge a new future in the United States, where I could pursue my interest in physics while also enjoying the warmth of California’s weather and people. 

As a first-generation college student and immigrant, there were many challenges. 

Unlike my American peers, I did not have access to many basic needs, such as a family insurance plan that guaranteed my health coverage before the age of 26. I had no credit history, no savings and no friends or family that I could lean on. I made my decision to immigrate anyway because the UC system promised a forward-thinking academic platform where I could learn and collaborate with the best physicists in the world.

That experience taught me many things — among them, that student researchers of the UC system need and deserve a union, so we can negotiate better protections for ourselves. Even though we are paid by the university, work long hours and make scientific contributions that net billions of dollars in grant funding each year, UC administrators refused to classify us as employees until they were required to by law.

That means that when we are injured at work (which, unfortunately, has occurred quite a few times in recent years), we do not have any labor protections. For an international person who has no financial safety net and no family to rely on while recovering, an on-the-job injury can be devastating for the future of both my career and financial status.

A union could address this issue, among many others.

Right now, new parents and those caring for sick family members are pleading their case for time off on an individual basis. The leave they get, if any, varies greatly from department to department, and even from supervisor to supervisor. Across-the-board policies on medical and parental leave would give everyone — workers and administrators alike — more stability and the opportunity to plan. For international workers who face byzantine visa restrictions on top of these challenges, clear policies would help enormously.

Overall, a union would help make the UC system a more equitable place to work. 

Many of the barriers that women and minority communities face are structural. An individual can only get so far in advocacy. It takes thousands of workers bargaining together to implement structural changes that will finally reduce the sky-high levels of harassment and discrimination, by delivering fair pay and family-friendly policies. For all workers, a union would provide a direct line to the school to address topics that may be difficult and time-consuming to negotiate individually, such as competitive wages, a grievance process, tuition remissions and more.

More safety and stability would be a welcome change for the university’s most vulnerable workers, many of whom are international. I’d prefer to keep my focus on my work, so I can continue to do the groundbreaking research that contributes to the UC system’s reputation as the most renowned research university in the world.

Yuanqi Lyu is a graduate student researcher in the physics department at UC Berkeley.