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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLADance Disassembled: Seeing Beyond the Curtain

UCLA community protests UC’s refusal to recognize student researchers union

Natalie Moncada, a molecular, cellular and integrative physiology doctoral student, spoke at the rally about their experiences as a graduate student researcher. (Ariana Fadel/Daily Bruin staff)

By Saumya Gupta and Christine Tran

Oct. 31, 2021 11:35 p.m.

Graduate students, undergraduate students and supporters from other labor unions rallied outside Young Hall on Thursday in protest of the University of California’s refusal to recognize the graduate student researcher union.

More than 200 supporters for Student Researchers United-United Auto Workers gathered at noon, when speakers spoke about the UC’s stance on fellows and trainees and its ongoing contract negotiations with other UC worker unions. SRU-UAW rallies occurred at all UC campuses Thursday except at UC Santa Cruz, which held a rally Tuesday.

[Related: UC fails to recognize student researchers union, seeks to exclude certain graduate positions]

The UC claimed to recognize the union Sept. 2 but sought to exclude fellows and trainees from union enrollment, arguing that those who receive external funding from traineeship and fellowship grants do not qualify as employees under the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act.

The California Public Employment Relations Board filed a letter Sept. 8 stating that partial union recognition is not allowed and considered the UC’s response as a complete denial of recognition.

[Related: California PERB declares UC failed to recognize student researchers union]

The UC is in ongoing discussions regarding the composition of a new bargaining unit, said Ryan King, a UC Office of the President spokesperson, in an emailed statement. He added that the UC recognizes a majority of the graduate student researchers in the union and hopes to resolve discussions soon so negotiations can begin.

“However, there are differences in perspectives between UC and the UAW regarding other individuals included in the petition who are not University employees as defined by the Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act,” King said.

According to an update from the SRU-UAW, PERB, the UC and the union held a meeting Oct. 22 to discuss recognizing the union. However, the UC reasserted its position on excluding fellows and trainees. Another meeting is scheduled for Nov. 9 between PERB, the UC and the SRU-UAW.

Zeena Rivera, a neuroscience doctoral student, said in their speech at the rally that in the UC’s latest response to PERB, the UC claimed that fellowship grants are gifts to graduate students toward completing their education, and the student researcher union is not in line with the UC’s mission of graduate education.

“We can see the UC’s words for what they are – a distortion of our actual working conditions,” Rivera said. “An attempt to bust our union and to keep us from getting the living wages, benefits and workplace protections that we all need and deserve.”

The crowd marched to Murphy Hall after the speeches, chanting, “Who are we? SRU,” and “What’s disgusting? Union busting. What’s appalling? UC stalling.” SRU-UAW representatives intended on handing a letter to Chancellor Gene Block to urge the UC to recognize the union. However, Block was not in Murphy Hall at the time. The rally ended soon after at 1 p.m.

Rivera added that it is disheartening to see the UC trying to exclude fellows from the union.

“It’s maddening because there is no true difference between what I do as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research fellow, as opposed to any of my colleagues,” Rivera said. “We’re all working toward doing good science (and) doing good research.”

Nick Geiser, a physics doctoral student researcher, said the UC has refused to come to the negotiating table to begin bargaining, and now union members are voting whether they should authorize a strike.

On Tuesday, SRU-UAW voted to begin a strike authorization vote, which would start Nov. 10 and end Nov. 19. The union needs approval from two-thirds of all voting student researchers for the authorization vote to pass.

The union has so far received support from other UC labor unions and politicians across California.

Rep. Katie Porter and 30 other members of Congress sent a letter Tuesday to UC President Michael Drake urging the UC to immediately recognize the union, including fellows and trainees.

“Student Researchers are essential drivers of the University of California’s research mission,” the letter said. “Their hard work and dedication is a major reason why the school system received $3.7 billion in federal research contracts and grant revenue in fiscal year 2020.”

Natalie Moncada, a molecular, cellular and integrative physiology doctoral student, said they are hopeful that the representatives’ support will push the UC to begin negotiations with the SRU-UAW.

Union members from University Professional and Technical Employees, UAW Local 5810 and University Council – American Federation of Teachers also attended the rally to demonstrate their support for SRU-UAW.

Maria Alves, a postdoctoral researcher and a steward of UAW Local 5810, said she does not understand why the UC refuses to recognize SRU-UAW since other UC workers such as postdoctoral researchers and librarians have been allowed to unionize.

She added that UAW Local 5810 sent a letter containing signatures of postdoctoral students who support SRU-UAW’s recognition to the divisional teams.

It is important for working people to have their own voices in the workplace, said Tom Yau, a molecular biology lab assistant and member of UPTE.

“This is what democracy is all about. It’s about men and women changing their own environments,” Yau said. “If working people don’t work together and demand better working conditions or even run their own workplaces, … we’ll just be crushed.”

Multiple unions representing lecturers, librarians, postdoctoral students and teaching assistants are currently or will soon be negotiating their contracts with the UC, Geiser added.

“It’s a really powerful time,” he said. “All together, we’re going to have a lot of power as labor on campus to make demands from the UC.”

Contributing reports from Victoria Li, Science and health editor.

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Saumya Gupta | Assistant News editor
Gupta is the 2020-2021 assistant News editor for the national news and higher education beat. She was previously a contributor for the beat. She is also a third-year psychology student.
Gupta is the 2020-2021 assistant News editor for the national news and higher education beat. She was previously a contributor for the beat. She is also a third-year psychology student.
Christine Tran | National news and higher education editor
Tran is the 2021-2022 national news and higher education editor in addition to being a contributor for Enterprise. She is also a fourth-year political science student at UCLA.
Tran is the 2021-2022 national news and higher education editor in addition to being a contributor for Enterprise. She is also a fourth-year political science student at UCLA.
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