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UC Student Researchers Threaten To Strike If Union Goes Unrecognized

a man in a white lab coat and a white hairnet peers into a microscope
Student researchers help develop everything from energy-efficient technologies to cancer treatments.
(Lucas Vasques
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Student researchers at the University of California are prepared to go on strike if management insists on not recognizing all of its union members.

The union, Student Researchers United-UAW, represents about 17,000 people who work at the 10 university campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

On Monday, organizers announced that the vast majority of union members who cast a ballot voted to authorize a strike if the University of California does not switch course.

Earlier this year, student researchers submitted more than 10,000 signed cards to the state’s Public Employee Relations Board, indicating that they wanted to be represented by the union. State authorities verified the majority and the union’s right to be recognized in August. Months later, that still hasn't happened.

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At stake is a dispute over student researchers who have fellowships and training grants. Attorneys representing the UC system maintain that these students are not university employees, adding that “converting” them to employees “would only serve to add to their workload by requiring them to perform services for the University in addition to focusing on their own studies.”

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the union said that the UC system “has stalled and delayed the process, brought in ‘union avoidance’ attorneys and filed baseless objections.”

Who Doesn't UC Want Included?

Last week, more than 50 lawmakers wrote a letter to UC President Michael Drake urging him to recognize the union.

In an emailed statement, Ryan King, a spokesperson for the UC office of the President, said that the university system doesn't object to the union, but rather disagrees with the union's inclusion of certain students:

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"UC does not dispute that most of the graduate students included in UAW’s petition are student employees and, as such, should be included in the bargaining unit. However, it is important to recognize that there are a number of graduate student fellows and trainees with no employment relationship with the University."

The university contends that those they consider ineligible include "graduate students whose funding is primarily intended to support learning experiences that contribute to the students’ progress toward their graduate or professional program of study, or for which the students receive academic credit."

The Student Researchers United-UAW's announcement comes on the heels of another labor organizing effort at the University of California. Just last week, lecturers called off a strike after securing a long-sought contract agreement.

Like the lecturers, student researchers work across a wide array of departments, helping develop everything from energy-efficient technologies to cancer treatments. Some other daily tasks can also involve writing grant proposals and mentoring other students. Their union aims to secure an enforceable contract against late or short pay, workplace discrimination and other issues.

Nick Geiser is a doctoral candidate in theoretical elementary particle physics at UCLA. He is also a student researcher. About three years ago, he worked as a teaching assistant and was able to secure a settlement after experiencing late pay.

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"I saw the benefit of having a union firsthand," he said. "We tend to jump around between job titles in this field, so it's important to expand those protections."

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