UC Berkeley Faculty Association

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BFA Supports SB 259 – Graduate Student Researchers’ Right to Organize

Dear Assembly Member Fuentes,

We of the Berkeley Faculty Association (BFA) wish to alert you to the fact that many faculty support SB 259, which would allow UC’s Graduate Student Researchers (GSRs) to unionize. We affirm the right of all employees to organize and we also affirm the importance of Graduate Student Researchers helping to shape the contract stipulating conditions of their work.

UC’s stated arguments against allowing GSRs to unionize are:

1) It would change the relationship between faculty and GSRs, and specifically “supplant the student-faculty relationship with a labor-management relationship…” In fact, GSRs and faculty already have a complicated student-faculty and labor-management relationship. Moreover, any changes that would occur in the case of unionization would happen at the administrative level, not at the level of individual relationships: Currently all faculty employing GSRs must use the contract UC requires for graduate student researchers. This would continue to be the case if unionization occurred; however, the contract would be one that the union helped to shape. We would add that while the “special faculty-student relationship” is indubitably an important part of academic culture, it is also precisely what makes GSRs occasionally vulnerable to being overworked, underpaid, or arbitrarily treated. The right to unionize reduces this vulnerability.

2) Students might negotiate a bad contract. UC first worries that a union’s likely goal of limiting paid research tine to 8 hours a day would not allow GSRs enough time to do the research necessary to graduate. In this, UC’s argument conflates a graduate student’s own unpaid dissertation research with the paid research they do as a GSR for a faculty employer. UC also argues that this likely union goal would interfere with what is currently stipulated by UC as no more than a 50% time position. UC then worries that a GSR union would not negotiate a high enough salary to attract graduate students to UC. This seems unlikely. Moreover, UC ignores the fact that this legislation would not assign a union to GSRs but only to give GSRs the right to choose a union. If UC is really a benevolent and magnanimous employer, GSRs will not choose to be represented by a union.

The Dean of the Graduate Division at Berkeley has further argued that UC Berkeley GSRs are paid better than GSRs at other UC campuses, which might be precluded by a systemwide union negotiated contract. This preclusion is questionable (it does not currently hold for Graduate Student Instructor union contracts), but the argument itself attacks both the principle of the “power of Ten” at the heart of the quality of the UC system and the principle of equal educational opportunity at the heart of the California Master Plan for Higher Education. It is a “Berkeley for itself and by itself” argument that erodes both principles.

We urge the California State Assembly Committee on Appropriations to pass SB 259. Thank you for considering the views of the faculty represented by the Berkeley Faculty Association.

Sincerely,

Wendy Brown and Chris Rosen,
Co-Chairs of the UC Berkeley Faculty Association

Dick Walker
Vice Chair of the UC Berkeley Faculty Association

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