01/11/2013

Oregon labor board rules all grad students are employees

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The Oregon Employment Relations Board ruled on Jan. 4 that all graduate teaching and research assistants at Oregon State University are public employees and have the right to bargain collectively. The decision allows nearly 700 graduate research assistants, who signed cards and petitioned the labor board for an election last spring, to vote on the question of being represented by the Coalition of Graduate Employees.

CGE is affiliated with AFT-Oregon, and since 1999 has represented more than 900 graduate employees who are predominantly teaching assistants. When the union formed, the university successfully argued that some of the graduate assistants were engaged in research primarily to fulfill advanced degree requirements; this group was found ineligible to be part of the bargaining unit.

Despite their ineligibility, the unrepresented assistants still received the same pay and health benefits as CGE members, and were on the university's payroll system. CGE allowed them to be associate members of the union and, at the bargaining table, negotiated contracts that did not recognize a difference, says Wren Keturi, CGE president. "We have tried to bargain for the research assistants to the best of our abilities," she says, "but because they weren't part of the unit, they didn't have a voice at the table. They have always known they were in a precarious position in regard to their rights, should they be unjustly fired, for instance."

Last spring, a significant majority of the 680 unrepresented graduate employees indicated their desire to be represented by CGE by signing authorization cards. On review, an administrative law judge found that the graduate assistants both are employees and share a community of interest with their graduate colleagues in CGE. That was the decision the board just upheld.

The graduate employees will hold an election this spring to confirm the will expressed by their 2012 petition drive. Once the election is certified, the new unit members will be covered under a four-year contract CGE negotiated and ratified in fall 2012. "We're looking forward to bargaining with the collective strength of 1,700 as we work to improve working and living conditions for us all," says Keturi. [Barbara McKenna]

January 11, 2013