Tis’ the season to strike?
University of California Student Researchers United (SRU) from all 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have voted yes, 10,622 out of 10,890, to authorize a recognition strike to form a labor union local with the United Auto Workers (UAW).
In this way, the SRU can bargain collectively with UC. To this end, one SRU aim is to win wage increases to pay for high rents across the Golden State, where demand outstrips the supply, a festering problem in and out of academia.
[UPDATE:] On Wednesday, Dec. 8, UC agreed to recognize Student Researchers United/UAW, the union reported.
A supermajority of SRU filed cards with the state Public Employment Relations Board to join the UAW on May 24
Recent public school teacher strikes in part helped to lay the 2021 groundwork for labor militancy in the pandemic economy, according to author Kim Moody. “Workers learn from the victories of other workers and from the perception that their own conditions are shared by others across society,” he writes. “The education workers of 2018 and 2019 were, indeed, teaching others that when the conditions are right, the time to strike and win has come.”
A supermajority of SRU filed cards with the state Public Employment Relations Board to join the UAW on May 24. However, UC had and has a problem with some SRU seeking to unionize.
There are 17,000 SRs in the UC system. UC’s interpretation of the California Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act excludes about 6,000 SRU workers (some of whom did vote in the strike authorization ballot), called Fellows and Trainees, from joining the UAW. Fellows and Trainees receive their pay from non-UC funds like the National Institutes of Health.
“These graduate students are pursuing a course of study,” UC spokesperson Erika Cervantes said via email. “The financial aid and other funding they receive is not dependent on them performing work for the University, it is intended to support learning experiences that contribute to progress toward their graduate or professional program of study. Since these graduate students are not employees, it would not be appropriate to include them in the new bargaining unit.”
“We are committed to coming to a resolution with the union and look forward to continuing our good-faith discussions with the UAW…” — Erika Cervantes
On Sept. 8, the PERB disputed UC’s definition of the 6,000 SRU members as non-UC employees. This is and has been a sticking point for UC. To-date, UC has not budged on this issue.
According to UC, however, it wants to reach an agreement.
“We are committed to coming to a resolution with the union and look forward to continuing our good-faith discussions with the UAW regarding the composition of this new bargaining unit,” says Cervantes. “UC hopes to resolve this matter in a timely fashion so that contract negotiations regarding the terms and conditions of employment for this new bargaining unit can commence.”
One member of SRU is displeased with the pace of the recognition resolution. Raymundo Miranda is a graduate student researcher in UC San Diego’s Neuroscience Department.
“UC has ignored our democratic and legal choice to unionize for more than six months now,” he said in a statement. “We are disappointed that it has come to this, but California’s PERB verified our union, and a supermajority of workers support it. UC has left us no choice but to authorize a strike.”
“UC student researchers love the work that we do and we don’t want to go on strike, but UC has left us no choice.” — Laura Beebe
In related academic labor news, UC’s 6,500 part-time professors recently threatened a two-day strike then got a new five-year contract that hikes their pay, on average, 6 percent annually. The UC-American Federation of Teachers represents these non-tenured, part-time professors.
In the meantime, the UAW has strike funds available to the SRU after day eight of a strike. If the SRU does go out on strike, it would be the biggest academic labor action ever.
Currently, 3,000 Student Workers of Columbia in New York City, a union for research and teaching assistants in UAW Local 2110, have been on strike since Nov. 3, seeking higher pay and expanded health-care coverage. UC could be in for an historic holiday season if the SRU strike committee votes to walk out.
Laura Beebe is a fifth year Ph.D. student in biological sciences and represents UC San Diego on the SRU strike committee.
“UC student researchers love the work that we do,” she said in an email, “and we don’t want to go on strike, but UC has left us no choice. We want to do our research in an environment that is fair and equitable, protected from the frequent discrimination and harassment we face, and where we are able to contribute on our merits. SRU are ready to strike. A date hasn’t been decided yet.”
Ed’s Note: Seth Sandronsky reports regularly for Capitol Weekly. He can be reached at sethsandronsky@gmailcom.