Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) has filed legal objections to a union petition that’s supported by a majority of its roughly 250 graduate student research assistants. OHSU administrators argue that the research assistants are students, not workers, and thus don’t have the right to unionize. That’s an argument private universities have made for decades, and federal judges have gone back and forth on the question.
But’s particularly at OHSU, it’s complete nonsense, said grad student researchers at a Nov. 15 union rally at the OHSU campus.
Marc Meadows, who’s in the fourth-year of a Ph.D. program in neuroscience, attends no classes, but spends more than 50 hours a week doing research in retina physiology, trying to shed light on how synapses form connections in the brain. For that work, he receives tuition remission, a $30,000-a-year stipend, and basic health insurance coverage. He uses the same tools and works on the same project as post-doctoral researchers who are classified by OHSU as employees. But OHSU argues he’s not an employee.
“Every meeting I’ve had with the administration, they’ve tried to make that clear that we don’t deserve the same recognition as employees, and that we don’t deserve the same benefits as employees, because we are students and we should feel lucky to even be paid,” Meadows said. “But the reality is that we do work for them, so they should pay us, and we should have the right to negotiate for more.”
Meadows was one of about 100 pro-union graduate student employees and supporters who rallied Nov. 15 on the lawn outside Mackenzie Hall. Many held signs saying “Graduate research is work” along with the logo of their union, AFSCME.
Hoping to negotiate a livable wage, adequate health coverage, some say over conditions, and greater protection against workplace abuses, a majority of the graduate student faculty signed union cards seeking to join AFSCME, and turned them into the Oregon Employment Relations Board Aug. 29. Under Oregon’s public sector “card check” law, it should have been a slam dunk — graduate student teaching and research faculty are already in recognized unions at all other major public universities in Oregon, and many of those have much lighter workloads than the OHSU grad student researchers. But OHSU is delaying union recognition with the objections it filed.
“One way or another, these workers will have a union, and they will have a contract,” Oregon AFSCME executive director Stacey Chamberlain told rally participants.
A hearing on the objections is scheduled for Dec. 12.