Grad Student Researchers Win Battle for Union Recognition

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The University of California has averted a graduate student researcher strike by formally recognizing the entirety of the Student Researchers United-United Auto Workers (SRU-UAW) union on Dec. 8.

Now, Student Researchers United represents approximately 16,700 graduate student researchers, trainees and fellows working towards graduate degrees at its 10 campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The union is the country’s largest new bargaining unit of 2021 and the largest union of academic student workers in U.S. history.

Union organizers were delighted by the news, which came after a November strike vote in which 10,890 graduate students authorized a strike with 97.5% in favor.

“I was so excited and I was so proud of all of us, all the graduate students from all over California that had come together to stand up for ourselves against a giant, wealthy institution like the University of California,” said Melissa Mendez, a second-year PhD candidate in the Tetrad Graduate Program who has been organizing with the union for the past year. 

“And to have accomplished and won our recognition fight, it was just such a proud moment.”

The fight for recognition began last May, when SRU-UAW submitted over 11,000 signed authorization cards to the Public Employee Relations Board of California, which certified that a majority of student researchers wanted to form a union. 

However, the University of California attempted to acknowledge the union only for student researchers classified as “Graduate Student Researchers,” which includes student researchers who do not have external funding sources. 

Any student who obtains external funding is classified as a trainee or fellow and, according to a letter the UC sent to the California Public Employee Relations Board (PERB) has “no employee relationship” with the university. 

Due to the UC’s objection to the inclusion of trainees and fellows in the bargaining unit, they declined to recognize Student Researchers United and would not negotiate with them over contracts.

This stalemate between SRU-UAW and the University of California led union organizers to kick into high gear.

“We basically pulled all the stops,” Mendez said. 

Organizers asked California congress and assembly members to pressure the UC. They also held rallies on all 10 UC campuses and 5,501 student researchers voted on a resolution, with 5,482 voting that UC should recognize that trainees and fellows belonged in the same union as graduate student researchers.

“We even had a strike authorization vote and were fully prepared to strike if the UC didn’t drop these ridiculous demands,” Mendez said. “But that’s what it took, it took us not backing down and being completely serious. And ready to strike if necessary.”

Ryan King, University of California associate director of media relations, said in a statement that the UC was always fully supportive of the graduate student researchers’ right to union representation, and that “the vast majority” belonged in the UAW.

“UC believes our graduate student researchers make important contributions to the University,” he said.

The delayed recognition was due to a need for clearer definitions, he said.

“There was a group of graduate students that required closer examination and discussion. The core issue was defining who is a student employee — i.e., a student who has an employment relationship with UC.”

The next step for SRU-UAW and the UC is to begin negotiations on a contract. This process is planned to start mid-February.

“Well, first of all we’re all going to celebrate. That’s the immediate next step,” Mendez said. “But in terms of actual work what comes next is getting together to elect a bargaining committee.” 

This committee, which will consist of representatives from the 10 UC campuses and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, will begin gathering student input on their needs. 

“So maybe that requires things like bargaining surveys, conversations one-on-one with people, just trying to make sure that the demands and the issues that people care about are going to be taken into account when bargaining starts,” said Mendez.

UC will be negotiating with the union for a multi-year collective bargaining agreement in the coming months, according to King.

“The University appreciates UAW’s partnership as we worked through the process,” he said. “We look forward to beginning good-faith negotiations.”