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New California law allows graduate student researchers to unionize

(Daily Bruin file photo) Graduate students researchers may decide to unionize after Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 201.

By Sharon Zhen

Oct. 31, 2017 11:51 p.m.

Graduate student researchers may decide to unionize because of a new law that classifies them as employees of the University of California.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 201 into law earlier this month, which gives GSRs the opportunity to collectively bargain labor issues, such as the pay they receive to conduct research. Classifying GSRs as employees also gives them protections under the labor code to negotiate work conditions, parking and other employee rights.

While graduate student teaching assistants are unionized, GSRs are not because the law previously classified graduate student researchers as students, not employees.

United Auto Workers 2865, the union that represents TAs, may be able to represent GSRs, according to a statement the Graduate Student Association released Thursday. Jonathan Koch, Los Angeles campus chair for UAW 2865, said GSRs and TAs share concerns over lab safety, pay, benefits and parking.

Koch said the union is discussing what a GSR contract would look like, given that GSRs are not paid by the university. Instead, they receive their wages from funding that principal investigators raise, he said. Principal investigators, who are University employees, lead research projects often funded by resources outside the university, such as contracts or grants.

Koch said since labs get different amounts of funding, researchers working under a PI with a lot of money from grants may have flexible hours and a light workload, while researchers in a lab that is not as well funded may have to work longer hours.

Koch said he thinks a good union contract would somewhat standardize researchers’ hours and workload because researchers would be protected under labor laws. He added it would also supplement GSR wages with money from the UC instead of putting pressure on PIs to pay GSRs.

“(If) GSRs are unionized, when they ask for better control over working conditions, we’re not putting pressure on the PI (but instead) putting pressure on the university,” he said.

Koch also said he thinks researchers would be able perform better with higher wages.

UC spokesperson Stephanie Beechem said in an email the University is committed to providing competitive salaries to GSRs and enhancing graduate education.

GSA president Michael Skiles said the association will be collecting signatures to gather support for GSR unionization. In order for GSRs to unionize, 70 percent of UCLA graduate researchers need to sign the unionization card.

Skiles said he thinks unionizing would allow GSRs to collectively bargain for pay increases and reasonable working hours. In addition, UAW 2865 has a dedicated labor lawyer that represents TAs during contract agreement disputes or when they face disciplinary action.

Skiles said he thinks UAW 2865 would be a reasonable union for GSRs to join because many graduate students are already represented by the union as TAs. He added many graduate students switch between working as TAs and researchers during different quarters.

“While we would encourage graduate students to join any union, we think UAW – in virtue of already being here (and) already understanding the administrative hierarchy – is our natural partner,” he said.

Skiles added the GSA plans to work with UAW 2865 to make more graduate students aware of their right to unionize.

“We can all collectively discuss what unions have to offer our students, and students can make an informed decision,” he said. “We’ll make sure students are aware of the opportunity to sign unionization cards.”


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Sharon Zhen
Zhen is an assistant news editor for the national and higher education beat. She was previously a contributor for the campus politics beat and an online contributor.
Zhen is an assistant news editor for the national and higher education beat. She was previously a contributor for the campus politics beat and an online contributor.
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