OSU grad students crash donor party

Coalition of Graduate Employees President Wren Keturi, an Oregon State University graduate teaching assistant, protests OSU’s refusal to acknowledge graduate research assistants as employees. (Photo by Kristen Fitzpatrick, courtesy of AFT-Oregon)

Oregon State University (OSU) has refused to recognize a union for graduate research assistants, so three dozen of them showed up with signs Oct. 25 outside a Portland appreciation dinner for major donors to the university.

The research assistants are graduate students who receive free tuition and a stipend, in exchange for which they perform research under the direction of university faculty. American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-Oregon says a significant majority of the 750 research assistants have signed authorization cards seeking to join an existing union — AFT Local 6069 — which covers 900 graduate teaching assistants. They submitted the cards, and requested union recognition, in March.

But OSU argued before the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB) that the research assistants are not employees, and that the money they’re paid is student financial aid. AFT countered that the same positions at the University of Oregon are included in the graduate assistant bargaining unit. The assistants work up to 20 hours a week and earn from $600 to $1,600 a month.

AFT organizer Eben Pullman said the OSU graduate teaching assistant unit has won incremental improvements — including health insurance, improved work rules and a grievance procedure — since they unionized in 1999, and OSU extends the same terms to the nonunion graduate research assistants.

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I was really hoping [OSU President Ed Ray] would come out and have a conversation with us.” —  Wren Keturi, president of the Coalition of Graduate Employees.

[/pullquote]At the Portland Art Museum, where the fundraising dinner was held, pro-union grad students were joined by scores of supporters, including Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain. They hoped to confront OSU President Ed Ray, but never saw him. Pullman said students got polite receptions and sympathy from some of the donors.

ERB heard oral arguments Oct. 22 about whether OSU graduate research assistants are employees. If ERB decides they are, they could move forward with a union election in which they’d be added to the existing bargaining unit.

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