Huge new union of student researchers at the University of California wins recognition

In a historic victory decades in the making, Student Researchers at the University of California have won union recognition and will soon begin bargaining. The university had attempted to delay recognition but backed down in the face of a supermajority strike threat by SRs. Their union, Student Researchers United/UAW, represents all 17,000 SRs across the 10-campus UC system and is the largest group of workers in the United States to form a union in over a decade.

Student Researchers at UC have tried to form a union for over 30 years but university administration opposed them at every turn, claiming that student researchers were not employees under California law. After winning a long battle to amend the law in 2017, SRs began a new round of organizing that continued despite the COVD-19 pandemic. In May, the union submitted a supermajority of union authorization cards — over 12,000 — to the state labor board and demanded recognition.

Under California law, when a majority of workers sign union cards, the employer is supposed to recognize the union and begin bargaining. UC attempted a convoluted legal strategy to oppose recognition and delay bargaining. Despite spending untold thousands of public dollars on “union-avoidance” attorneys, this ended in utter failure. UC attempted to argue that researchers paid off certain types of federal grants receive pay that is “akin to gifts from the University to support students during their studies. There are no strings attached; no required reporting; and no required work.” In addition to this being an utter lie, this ridiculous stance exposed UC’s attempts to break the union and ultimately made the union stronger.

In the face of employer opposition, SRs were ready to fight back. SRs held marches and rallies, signed petitions in the thousands, and created op-eds and videos highlighting UC’s attempts to evade union recognition. The fightback culminated in a strike authorization vote held November 10-19 in which over 65% of SRs participated and 97.5% voted in favor of striking for recognition. Shortly after the vote concluded, and facing the real possibility of researchers shutting down campuses across the state, the university completely caved and agreed to include all SRs in the union. This historic win also sets an important precedent as other universities have tried similar tactics to exclude certain types of student-workers from bargaining units.

“This decision is a credit to the thousands of Student Researchers who, during COVID, organized for the right to negotiate with UC as equals,” said Jess Banks, a Student Researcher in the Mathematics department at UC Berkeley. “Our goal now is to bargain a contract that reduces the gender inequity in academia, secures important protections for international workers, and raises compensation so that all student researchers can afford to live where we work.”

Among the issues that SRs have prioritized in bargaining surveys include provisions that will promote gender equity, equalize rights for international students, raise wages, and provide affordable housing, as well as contract provisions to mitigate climate change like free public transit.

According to Aarthi Sekar, a Student Researcher in the Integrative Genetics and Genomics Graduate Group at UC Davis, “We want to do our work in an environment that is fair and equitable, where we are protected from the frequent discrimination and harassment we face, and where we are able to contribute on our merits. Today we are one step closer to that goal. We look forward to working with UC to bargain a fair contract that improves working conditions for the people whose labor has made UC one of the most respected research institutions in the world.”

Now the action shifts to SRs fighting to win a contract. Like other anti-union employers, UC often tries to delay reaching agreement on first contracts as long as possible. With the addition of student researchers, the UAW now includes about 100,000 academic workers, including over 45,000 at the University of California alone. In addition to SRU-UAW, the three other UAW bargaining units at UC — Postdoctoral Scholars, Academic Student Employees, and Academic Researchers — will all be negotiating contracts in 2022 and will be trying to win on many of the same issues, setting the stage for big, coordinated actions across California.

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