By Andrew Fraley
What do they want? A fair and equal contract for every Research Assistant. When do they want it? Last semester, actually. Since the union’s establishment at the end of the Fall 2008 semester, members of the Communication Workers of America Local 1104 have been actively working to ensure fairer wages, more favorable benefits and better job security for Research Assistants at Stony Brook University.
Amidst reports of anti-union campaigning by the Research Foundation, the private entity that employs the RA’s, graduate students here at Stony Brook voted to unionize in December 2008. Soon after, union organizers set to work on a contract for RA’s that was on their terms. “[Our goal is] a contract with a robust grievance procedure that ensures that RAs are treated fairly and protected from exploitive or inappropriate treatment by our employers,” said Zvi Citron, an RA in the physics department and member of the bargaining committee. To date, however, organizers have met with a dismissive and unresponsive RF.
Members of the bargaining committee, made up of several RA’s, Organizing Director Jim McAsey, union president George Bloom and an attorney, claim that little headway has been made due to a perceived condescension on the RF’s part. According to Citron, the RF would refuse to negotiate on certain topics, and occasionally caused delays through “deliberate misinterpretations and obfuscations”. Zosia Turek, another committee member and RA in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, also noted a refusal to negotiate. Paul Kelly, RF’s Assistant Vice President for Human Resources, explained that during the bargaining process some proposals by both parties are accepted, and some are not. “This is very common in bargaining,” Kelly said.
More recently, talks have become more productive, and more frequent. Meeting once every three weeks (or more often), the negotiations are making progress. After a May 8 bargaining session, the third one since the union’s organization, the two parties had accomplished very little. The only article that passed thus far stated that the final contract is to be in agreement between the two parties. After a May 26 session, however, members had noticed a marked improvement to their situation, including two additional articles; one about union membership and the other about safety. “I think as we’ve stood strong they seem to be treating us somewhat more seriously,” Citron said.
Involvement by the committee has also increased. “We had a lively discussion,” said Turek. “More members of the committee talked. We were able to argue better for ourselves.” While many of the proposals were still denied, Turek noticed that many committee members were active in arguing for each point, or conceding when the reason was acceptable. “We made logical arguments about why we wanted certain things, and we asked for logical reasons why they wouldn’t agree to them,” Turek said. “Sometimes they had a good reason, sometimes they didn’t.”
Although Kelly asserts that the RF has always given a reason for rejecting a proposal, often it’s the reasoning that is disputed. For example, the committee proposed an article that included protection against discrimination based on familial status, citizenship status, ancestry, gender expression, gender identity, weight and height that the RF rejected, since it doesn’t fall within the legal obligations set by current anti-discrimination labor laws. Current labor laws only protect against race, age, sex, disability and sexual orientation discrimination; the RA’s want to extend these to include every union member. Turek sees the committee arguing for it in later sessions. “I don’t expect it’s going to be easy to win.”
In addition, the committee proposed linking the RA Union’s website on the RF’s, for better information dissemination. The RF rejected this, saying, “RF maintains its own website, as does the union. We explained that RF will not be proposing to have any presence on the union’s website, and we think it is appropriate to keep the respective websites separate.”
Both parties expect negotiations to last several more months at least. “Initial contracts typically take longer to negotiate than subsequent contract updates,” explained Kelly. Fiscal issues have not been discussed, both parties opting to save them for last. This is standard procedure, according to Kelly. Financial issues may also be one of the more important items on the bargaining table for the RA’s. Looking to increase their stipend to a comparable level to other universities around the country, as well as to accommodate for the additional cost of living on Long Island, bargaining sessions are putting that aside until they have the other issues agreed upon.
Under current labor laws, there is no final date an agreement must be reached. Both parties are committed to meeting as often and as long as it takes to make sure this happens. In addition to the bargaining sessions, the committee is also meeting regularly to come up with new proposals.
All of this is being done for the sake of the RA’s, but the committee members need help from the community as well. Standing around a crowd of supporters after the May 8 bargaining session, Citron exclaimed “It’s this support that gets us a good contract.”