UC Regents Refuse to Recognize Student Researcher Union

Saturday, October 16, 2021

University of California Regents are refusing to acknowledge a union that graduate student researchers across the UC system have voted overwhelmingly to form. That leaves the working students powerless to negotiate contracts over wages or for legally binding language that would protect them from harassment and discrimination.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Katie Augspurger, a fourth year PhD candidate at UCSF.

In May, graduate students across the University of California filed union authorization cards with the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to support the formation of a union in collaboration with the United Auto Workers (UAW).

In August, PERB verified that a supermajority (over 65%) of student researchers in the UC system had voted to form a union: Student Researchers United (SRU).

The next step was for the UC system to formally recognize Student Researchers United and begin negotiating with them. SRU would join two other UAW-affiliated unions representing academic UC workers: UAW 2865, the teaching assistant and graduate student instructor union, and UAW 5810, the postdoc and academic researcher union.

However, in a letter to PERB on September 2, the Regents of the University of California declined to recognize Student Researchers United. They stated that while they were “pleased to recognize” students who are paid through the payroll system, they would not recognize trainees and fellows, who are paid through external funding sources like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

In the letter, the Regents of the University of California stated that “there is no community of interest” between graduate student researchers and trainees or fellows and that they did not consider them to do “substantially similar work.”

“You can walk into my lab and you can’t tell the difference between an NSF fellow or me, a graduate student researcher,” Augspurger said. “We do the same work. So, trying to exclude all these people is ridiculous.”

Melissa Mendez, a second year PhD student at UCSF who is currently funded through her program’s training grant, agreed.

“To me it showed how out of touch the UC administration is with what it means to be a student researcher, with what it means to be a graduate student at the University of California,” Mendez said. “Because if any of them were to walk into a lab then they would not be able to point out who is paid by what agency just by looking at the work that we all do. The realities of what it is to be a graduate student researcher is that we’re all working on the same projects, we’re all working under the same faculty members, we’re all having the same lived experience. And to have the UC be completely unaware of that is really disappointing.”

For now, SRU has requested PERB begin an investigation to determine whether graduate student researchers do substantially similar work to trainees and fellows.

Augspurger has been part of the unionization effort for the past year. She said that the primary motivation for many students who have been working to establish the union was to protect students from harassment and discrimination.

“Having legally binding wording in a contract to protect from harassment and discrimination so that if somebody is, for example, harassed in their lab we actually have legal recourse,” she said. “Not just reporting to the Title IX office at the university that’s controlled by the university without having any third party arbitrators or anybody else to help with those situations. So, a lot of those protections are really, really important and a lot of people are really passionate about them.”

Another motivation for many union organizers was negotiating for higher pay and benefits, she said.

“We’re traditionally undervalued employees, to put it in a nice way,” Augspurger said. “All GSRs, trainees, and fellows across the state should be getting paid more and in a timely manner.”

“When somebody gets paid four days late and their rent was due on the first? That’s rough,” she said. “Not everybody has the support network to be able to do that, so it tends to hurt people who don’t have the familial income, or the familial support that others do.”

No University of California spokesperson was available for an interview. However, the following statement was provided:

“The University of California recognizes the valuable role of our graduate student researchers in contributing to innovation and learning across our campuses. The United Auto Workers (UAW) recently filed with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) a petition seeking to become the exclusive collective-bargaining representative for UC graduate student researchers, which is the first of several steps in the formal process. That process is still ongoing. Generally, once a union becomes the certified representative of the employee unit at issue, UC and the union would then commence the collective-bargaining process.”

“It hurts to hear some of that,” Augspurger said in response to UC’s statement. “That the process is still ongoing. Because it doesn’t have to be ongoing. UC can do the right thing and recognize us and we can move on to the bargaining stage but instead, they’re not doing that.”

Mendez also encouraged the UC to recognize Student Researchers United.

“There’s no need for a years-long legal battle that will end with everyone being fully aware that we do the same work and deserve the same rights.”