Student researchers are in the process of forming a union across all 10 University of California campuses called Student Researchers United.
The organization submitted more than 10,000 authorization cards May 24 to the California Public Employees Relations Board.
If PERB confirms the organization as having a majority, Student Researchers United will become the largest union of academics in the country, said UCSB graduate researcher and SRU representative Robert McLaughlin.
The researchers don’t just have a majority; it’s an overwhelming majority, Kevin Smith, another researcher and SRU representative, told the News-Press.
“Almost everyone who we are able to get into contact with, they’re pretty excited to sign an authorization card,” he said.
He joined the effort to establish a union after joining UAW 2865, a union for graduate teaching assistants and tutors. Other student researchers joined that union even though it didn’t offer their position benefits.
“We saw the kinds of gains that the teaching assistants were making by being unionized,” he said. “Through their union contract, they’re securing higher pay. They’re getting more benefits, just basic protections in the workplace — the kinds of things that when we are funded as student researchers, we are not guaranteed because we don’t have a legally binding union contract.”
UAW 2865 signed its first contract with the University of California in 2000. But research assistants were not afforded collective bargaining rights until 2017 when Senate Bill 201 passed.
A large issue for the graduate researchers is the possibility they could lose funding.
Teaching assistants are guaranteed their pay when they’re offered a contract. But researchers have lost their positions — and stipends — without notice, putting them in precarious situations.
“As grad students, this is our job,” Mr. Smith said. “We do work for the university; they pay us, and that money is what we need to live on for rent and food and everything else.
“And many of us have families, many of us have children that we have to take care of. So it is important that we have enough to live on, especially in a high-cost area like Santa Barbara.”
Student researchers working a full-time equivalent are offered health insurance through the university but pay a fee for each dependent.
SRU also hopes for protections against discrimination and harrassment in the workplace.
“It’s something that we don’t have as researchers but seems even more important for us as our relationship to our advisors and other faculty is a very important one in our career. So having those protections is absolutely necessary,” Mr. McLaughlin said.
At the beginning of the campaign, SRU sent a survey to researchers to get an overview of the problems the organization should address. A majority of respondents identified they or someone they knew had been a victim of discrimination or harassment within their role as researchers.
Forming a union would also give researchers an opportunity to advise individual campus decisions. The university is obligated to consult with unions before making a change that affects them.
COVID-19 was not a catalyst for the movement, but the pandemic did reveal the need to guide university decisions.
SRU was already forming prior to lockdowns. The campaign goes back to the passage of SB 201, a success Mr. McLaughlin attributes to UAW 2865 lobbying.
Mr. Smith has ideas for the future of SRU, including lobbying for state funding.
“By having a union, we have this collective voice where we can try to lobby politically for the kind of funding that we need to get our research done,” he said. “At the University of California, we do world class research; we advance science and technology and a bunch of other fields. And by having a union, we have more of a political voice in securing funding for this important work.”
The University of California website touts its extensive research.
The university emailed the following statement to the News-Press.
“The University of California values its graduate student researchers and their many contributions to the University. UC neither encourages nor discourages unionization. UC supports employees’ right to make an informed decision and choose for themselves.”
It is unknown when PERB will finish verifying the authorization cards.