By Najib Aminy and Eric DiGiovanni
Stony Brook graduate student Kasia Sawicka works four jobs, her primary one a research assistant at Stony Brook University. Like the more than 700 RAs on this campus, she receives a paycheck of roughly $19,000 to help cover the expenses of living on Long Island all the while working countless hours in the lab.
“It depends,” said Sawicka describing her work hours after, initially laughing,
“When you have experiments going on, sometimes you don’t get to go home but to sleep only.”
Sawicka teaches the occasional course at Stony Brook, tutors and has worked in summer programs within the university to try and make ends meet, she said.
She and all of the RAs are also charged a $500 laboratory fee, parking fees and can be fired at any point with no grievance process to follow. Sawicka, like most RAs at Stony Brook, are students wanting to be heard, to be treated fairly, and their rights as workers to be honored.
“Not only are we doing work for the research foundation but then we have to pay them to use their technologies, we are the ones developing it, we are the ones who are doing the work on it,” Sawicka said.
Sawicka and a crowd of roughly 40 people, RAs, union representatives and local and university officials joined together to protest outside in the Academic Mall. After a few speeches and a couple minutes of shouting, the group proceeded to the office of Vice President for Research Gail Habicht on the fifth floor of the Melville Library in what was to honor the legacy of the student movements of the 60s the and labor movements of the 30s, according to Jim McAsey, organizing director of the RA Union.
The Research Foundation, the private organization based in Albany that funds RAs, teaching assistants and graduate assistants throughout the state, has participated in a number of bargaining sessions over the course of 2009.
But with little compromise taking place at these sessions, little has progressed since Stony Brook’s RAs unionized last December with the Communications Workers of America Local 1104, a state-wide union that represents over 8,000 members in the fields of education, operating services and telecommunications.
To the chants of, “open the door” and the sounds high pitched whistles, the RAs, with campus police in attendance, stood outside Vice President Habicht’s door and eventually slid their letter of intent below the door.
When reached for comment, Habicht denied an interview request but issued a statement and acknowledged the rally that took place. “The RF is committed to following all the rules set forth by the National Labor Relations Act and continue to bargaining in good faith with the union,” Habicht wrote in an email to The Press.
“The RF looks forward to the day that a mutually agreeable first contract is put in place. Until that time, the RF prefers to address any issues relating to the union or the contract at the bargaining table rather than in the media,” according to the statement.
In June 2009, The Press reported that only a few articles had passed, including one that stated the final contract is to be in agreement between both parties.
“They’re playing hardball,” said George Bloom, Education Division President of Local 1104 that represents Stony Brook’s RAs. “Out of the 26 items [proposed] they’ve agreed to like 6. And the things they’ve agreed to are very minimal.”
Though salaries are an issue RAs plan on addressing, only non-economic issues have been addressed with the foundation. Such issues include protection against discrimination, benefits and exemption from paying for clinical and work-related services.
“We want fees to be waived at least to same level as TA and GA,” said Kai Wu, a third year graduate student in Microbiology. “It’s ridiculous, they don’t pay but we still pay it.”
Local officials have taken notice to this ongoing battle. One Suffolk County Legislator even joined students on their walk up four flights of stairs in the library.
“I don’t think its too much to ask for, especially in this country, everybody is entitled to be respected for the work they do,” said Kate Browning of the Third Legislative District. “The bottom line, they are all very educated people, when you sit at a table with management, they’ve done this before. They know the tactics, they know the games,” added Browning who was a human rep. for a bus driver union before taking office.
When the two sides do agree to sit down, Sackia said she will remain hopeful as there is an opportunity for both sides to benefit.
“This is an opportunity for them, it’s not only an opportunity for us, its an opportunity for them to make Stony Brook competitive with all the Ivy League schools,” she said, emphasizing those students who would be deterred from the costs of living on Long Island.
“We are going to fight no matter what it takes,” Wu said, also part of the bargaining committee. “We just want to be treated fairly.”