Grad Union Opens Up

Concerned members of the union representing graduate student workers met on Tuesday, Jan. 21, to plan the future of the negotiations with the University of California system and connect with graduate students who wish to give their input regarding the bargaining process.

About 20 graduate students and members of the UAW 2865 union that represent Academic Student Employees (ASEs) within the UC system participated in  the union’s first town hall of the year that started at 6 p.m. in Doheny Cove A in the Student Center. The town hall meeting gave graduate students and other ASEs the opportunity to meet their union leaders and discuss plans for the coming year.

The meeting was focused around the union’s continued negotiations over terms of the new contract between the members of the union and other ASEs and the University of California administration. The current contract between the UC system and its ASEs has expired and negotiations for its renewal are still occurring. Both sides continue to push for their demands though according to Campus Unit Chair Robert Wood, a comparative literature graduate student, “most of the demands that they [UCOP] have backed off on but not all.”

The renewal period began in summer of 2013 as union representatives and representatives of the University of California Office of the President (UCOP) met to discuss the terms of the new contract before the old contract expired on Sept. 30. The negotiation process is still underway despite this fact. According to Wood, “They [UCOP] want a contract that is a continuation of the status quo,” and do not want to change the relation between themselves and their ASEs, according to Wood.

Before the question and answer portion of the town hall, Wood went over the union’s strategy for pushing for their demands which include greater pay and job security, securing of collective bargaining rights and equal pay for TAs for each quarter including summer. He believes that there are some allies within campus administration who would be of help and wanted everyone in attendance to know that not everyone within university administration is against their goals.

“Here at the university we have some people who are hostile to us and people who are sympathetic to us. For example, deans are more sympathetic because they might also want more money [for their departments], whereas people like the Chancellor are more hostile when he wants to privatize the university.”

According to him, winning these people over to their side would benefit their cause. As he explained, there are benefits to having sympathetic members among the administration while bargaining is ongoing.

“Traditionally we think of bargaining as something that takes place at the bargaining table. But the people they often bring to the bargaining table are the mid-level people. The real bargaining happens when they bring back the demands to the high-level people and they make the decisions.”

The Union is pushing not only for greater compensation and protection for workers but also for benefits for undocumented students, according to Irvine Unit Recording Secretary Jessica Conte, an East Asian Languages and literature graduate student.

“Basically we were looking for rights and opportunities for undocumented graduate students for TA-ships. One example was to try and use non Social Security ID numbers so that those who don’t present a social security number aren’t discriminated against,” Conte said.

She believes that this goal will ultimately be harder to achieve since former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano became president of the University of California. Conte called Napolitano’s record on immigration “horrible.” However, she confirmed that representatives of the union are scheduled to meet with President Napolitano to negotiate at some point in the future.

Conte also brought up the issues of workload, class size and healthcare for discussion.

A member of the audience asked Conte why she was focusing on class sizes. “I was wondering if we have different workloads, why should we focus on class sizes,” he said.

Conte responded that it was not just a matter of class size but also the ability to uphold the quality of education within the UC system.

“Some of the departments will just switch to scantrons in order to lower the workloads, but we want to protect the quality of education … If we make workload less, we not only see lower quality of education but [also] less job security.”

Another subject that was brought up was the requirement by UC schools mandating graduate students to complete their program within 18 quarters or face expulsion. When asked by a member of the audience what could be done about it, Wood gave his view on the matter.

“We all want people to graduate sooner, but we want to incentivize that, not punish those who don’t.” Many members of the audience agreed with this statement and some said they would support such a policy.

A guest speaker, Jorge Serrato, came from the service workers union to petition for support from graduate students for any action that their union, AFSCME 3299 would take in the future. He announced that they were going to hold another strike vote in February after the one day strike on Nov. 20. The vote comes as AFSCME is still undergoing negotiations for two contracts and according to him, this action may lead to another strike.

“The union has agreed to hold another strike vote and it may last one day, two days or longer,” Serrato said. He asked for the support of the graduate students and several members of the audience as well as Wood and Conte said they would be willing to lend their support.

Perhaps the largest concern for the leaders was how to continue applying pressure on UCOP with the resources they have. Wood urged everyone who would benefit to aid the union negotiation team in whatever way they could. As he put it, “What we have to do is to put pressure on the people who actually have the power.”