The University of California refused to recognize 5,644 of Student Researchers United’s 16,741 petitioners because they are trainees or fellows.
The university said it would accept a union of 10,789 graduate student researchers, but Student Researchers United isn’t satisfied. The researchers want to bargain collectively.
Attorney Sandra McDonough of Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton LLP submitted UC’s response to the California Public Employment Relations Board at almost 5:30 p.m. Thursday — the school’s last day to respond to the petition.
The Public Employment Relations Board verified they had a majority Aug. 4, giving the university 15 days. UC asked for an extension and kept quiet while it worked with self-described union-avoidance attorneys.
Ms. McDonough lauds in her bio recent judgments for a “higher education entity” for the following: a student discrimination/breach of contract case, two disability discrimination/retaliation cases, a pregnancy discrimination arbitration, a “PERB decision involving contract interpretation issue potentially affecting salary increases for an entire bargaining unit” and a harassment/hostile work environment case.
In addition to representing regents of the University of California, she has defended National University and the trustees of the California State University.
Student researchers say the letter she wrote on UC’s behalf doesn’t reflect their reality.
UC’s reponse divides those who have traditionally received W-2 forms from the university from those who receive funding from a third party.
“Critically, the continued receipt of a fellowship stipend is dependent on academic progress, not completion of specific research projects or deliverables that is typical of GSR (graduate student research) employment,” the letter says.
Elizabeth McCarthy, a researcher pursuing her M.D. and Ph.D. in biological and medical informatics at UC San Francisco, told the News-Press Monday that is not true for her and students like her.
She received her fellowship after she finished all her coursework. She has the same benchmarks as her peers who are paid through the university.
The only difference is she sends a periodic report to her grant program.
She works at the same bench as the researchers UC wrote it would recognize, and she receives the same amount of money. UCSF pays her the difference between her fellowship and her peers’ funding.
Some campuses give employee-like benefits too, but Ms. McDonough writes that it doesn’t mean fellows can unionize like the students on UC’s payroll.
“The fact that the University offers these benefits to students who are not employees does not create or imply an employment relationship,” the letter to PERB says.
The University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab postdoctoral researchers unionized in 2008, and UC recognized both fellowshipped and university-funded researchers.
The response distinguishes the unionizing efforts by saying: “Postdoctoral scholars are distinguishable from students because they have no other status at the University, except as an employee.”
In other words, because grad students are pursuing a degree, they are not guaranteed the benefits of an employee.
The letter to PERB continues an argument that even if the fellows and trainees are considered “student employees” by Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act standards, they are not a union.
It says there is no “community of interest,” as needed to form a unit.
UC contends that one portion answers to the university and the other reports to grant programs.
But a common thread throughout student researcher complaints is their dependence on their adviser.
They work under a faculty member who sets schedules and working conditions. Some leaders have dropped the project last-minute, causing researchers to lose funding.
Student Researchers United sent a survey to researchers to ask about working conditions. And 60% of respondents indicated that they had witnessed workplace discrimination or harassment.
They would like workplace protections, a guaranteed minimum wage and benefits such as parental leave.
But UC says it can’t provide these perks for fellows and trainees.
“The union has no standing to negotiate for wages, terms and conditions of employment and the like for the non-GSRs (fellows and trainees) as they are often governed by specific compensation terms from the respective grants and fellowships over which the union and the University have no control,” the letter says.
Student Researchers United is waiting for PERB to facilitate the next steps.
Members are spreading a digital petition at actionnetwork.org/petitions/recognize-sru-uaw-now, hoping to get UC administrators’ attention.