Decision clears way for union vote by student researchers at OSU

A state agency has paved the way for efforts to unionize additional graduate student workers at Oregon State University.

The Oregon Employment Relations Board ruled on Friday that all graduate research assistants at OSU qualify as public employees under the law and therefore have the right to union representation.

The 2-to-1 decision ends a lengthy battle between the university and the Coalition of Graduate Employees, American Federation of Teachers Local 6069, over the legal status of about 770 student workers and opens the door for a certification election.

AFT Local 6069 already represents some 900 graduate students who work for the university, most of them in the role of teaching assistants. But OSU had been resisting efforts to define most graduate research assistants as employees, saying their work primarily was in pursuit of their academic degree.

The union saw it differently.

“It’s a really arbitrary distinction,” said Local 6069 President Wren Keturi, a master’s student in public health who works as a teaching assistant in women’s studies. “I was very happy that the Employment Relations Board, a high decision-making body, has reaffirmed what we believed all along — that graduate research assistants are adding value to the university through their labor.”

The Coalition of Graduate Employees launched a push to expand the bargaining unit in March, when it filed a petition with the Employment Relations Board after collecting signed authorization cards from nearly two-thirds of the unrepresented grad assistants.

OSU pushed back, taking its case to an administrative law judge who ruled in the university’s favor in August.

But Friday’s decision appears to settle the argument once and for all. Steve Clark, the vice president for university relations and marketing, said OSU would not attempt to contest the Employment Relations Board’s ruling and will await the outcome of the certification vote.

The unrepresented grad assistants already receive comparable wages and benefits to the union workers, Clark said, so there won’t be any financial fallout for the university. But there might be an impact on the relationship between grad students and their professors.

“We don’t know what all the ramifications are,” Clark said. “The question we’ll be evaluating over the next several months is how do we work with these graduate students, how do we communicate with these graduate students if the rules change?”

Eben Pullman, the Oregon field coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers, said the state labor board is expected to set a date for the certification election soon and will mail ballots directly to the unrepresented grad assistants.

The election could come as early as next month, Pullman said, and given the results of last spring’s authorization vote, he’s confident of the outcome. If the unrepresented graduate assistants vote to join the union, it would swell the bargaining unit to nearly 1,700 workers, bolstering the union’s clout on campus.

“It’s great to see those workers will have a right to vote to have a union and their choices will be respected by the university,” he said.

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

(3) comments

Perspective
Perspective

This ruling seems to indicate that the state's college athletes (at least those receiving scholarships) would also be considered employees, and could unionize. In addition, it seems they should be eligible for workers' compensation. An article related to this issue can be found at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2001027.

Janet
Janet

It is about time that the university is compelled to treat this class of employees with more honesty and respect. It is common for professors to hire GRAs at less than the maximum of .49 FTE (graduate students cannot work more than .49 FTE according to university rules, slightly less than half time), but expect them to work essentially full time. Some grad students are forced to work more than one GRA position in order to make ends meet (they cannot add up to more than .49 FTE), and each professor expects full time work no matter how low the FTE. Seriously, this is not uncommon. OSU runs on the backs of its graduate research and teaching assistants.

lackers
lackers

I dont think it is true to state CGE "push(ed) to expand the bargaining unit" or "would swell the bargaining unit". RAs have always been members of the CGE bargaining unit. Over the course of the last 10 years OSU has be highly inconsistent and increasingly refusing to respect RAs signed membership cards and bargain over RAs work, time, pay, and benefits. OSU has always recognized some RAs as "In Service" to the university. However, as it become abundantly clear that CGE could not effectively represent these other RAs when OSU pretended they weren't employees, I am guessing the fully represented TAs of CGE decided to press the issue formally.

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