University blocks attempt to unionize
University cites 1977 decision, saying research assistants not truly employees of university
Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 21:07
Rob Hess has worked as a graduate research assistant at Oregon State University since 2007.
In that time, while working on his Ph.D. in computer science, Hess has sometimes been included as part of the bargaining unit for contract negotiations between the Coalition of Graduate Employees and the university. Other times, he has not.
This is because of the unique position of graduate research assistants at the university. While ultimately regarded as employees of the university, the status of graduate research assistants can change from term to term, leaving many wanting to be fully represented by the Coalition of Graduate Employees.
The union filed a motion with the state Employment Relations Board in March to represent all graduate student employees. The union filed the motion after collecting decision cards from 63 percent of unrepresented graduate student employees.
However, on May 1, the university filed a petition to block expanding the bargaining unit to research assistants. The Employment Relations Board will now have a hearing to decide whether to allow the research assistants to become a part of the union’s bargaining unit.
The university currently recognizes graduate teaching assistants as part of the bargaining unit, but does not recognize all research assistants. The university views the two groups of employees differently, seeing graduate teaching assistants as employees of the university providing a service through teaching, whereas research assistants are viewed primarily as students who — while paid — are primarily focusing on furthering their academic careers.
“The graduate research assistant is someone who is performing services, in part — if not exclusively — for the performance of their own academic requirements,” said Steve Clark, vice president of university relations and marketing. “A graduate research assistant is not assigned hours and the benefit they are receiving in addition to the compensation is the completion of their academic requirements, which results in a masters or a Ph.D.”
The university contends that there is a distinction between an employee and a student, and that while research assistants are paid, their role is primarily to be a student who is furthering his or her education. Clark cited a 1977 decision, the University of Oregon Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation v. the University of Oregon, which at the time determined that while teaching assistants can be considered employees of the university, research assistants are not.
“We’ve asked the state to reaffirm the ruling the state has made in the past or consciously determine that they are changing that ruling, rather then simply saying because someone asked for something that it should be accepted,” Clark said. “The university would like the Employment Relations Board to clarify, maintain or change the employment status as it pertains to research assistants.”
However, Mindy Crandall, president of the Coalition of Graduate Employees, cites that the University of Oregon has since changed its policy.
“That was the decision in the 70s between the U of O and GTFF. But their policy has changed. In the 90s, the U of O administration and the GTFF entered into a voluntary agreement that research assistants would be part of their bargaining unit,” Crandall said, using the acronym for the Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation, University of Oregon’s graduate employee union.
Hess doesn’t agree with the distinction the university makes and would like to be included as part of the bargaining unit. Hess was covered from winter 2009 until the end of winter term 2011. Since then, he has not been a part of the bargaining unit.
Most graduate research assistants are not automatically part of the bargaining unit, but at times may be considered a part of it. Clark said that from time to time, professors may mark the wrong box on the form, marking the work as in service to the university and may not understand the difference between the two. He also mentioned that in some cases, research assistants may be doing work that is not related to their thesis and may be considered an employee and a part of the bargaining unit.
“When I’m a research assistant, I think a lot of times the perception is that I’m doing research that’s going to be in my dissertation or thesis. But that’s also not always the case. A lot of the time the research we are doing is to just fill a grant, it doesn’t go on our dissertation or thesis,” Crandall said.
“I think the distinction the university makes is false,” Hess said. “Research assistants provide benefit to the university. Every paper I publish has OSU’s name on it. It helps build the prestige of the university and the department. Some of the research I’ve done has resulted in commercialization, which brought money into the department.”
While Clark acknowledged that sometimes the research conducted by research assistants is of financial benefit to the university, it is students who benefit the most.
“I think first they provide benefit to their academic achievement. The work associated with that does in some cases provide acknowledgement to the university, but that’s not the first beneficiary. The student is the beneficiary,” Clark said.
Graduate research assistants already receive most of the benefits teaching assistants receive. They receive the same healthcare and benefits as employees, and are compensated on a comparable amount. However, when research assistants are not a part of the bargaining unit, they do not receive the same protections.