By Jake Conarck
On the afternoon of September 15, about 150 research assistants, students, elected officials and union members gathered in the SAC auditorium to rally for research assistants’ right to unionize. RAs work for the SUNY Research Foundation and assist professors in conducting research but many feel they deserve better working conditions, including higher wages and health benefits.
Teaching assistants and graduate assistants employed by the university are already members of the Graduate Student Employees Union, a member of the Communication Workers of America Local 1104. However, research assistants do not enjoy the same benefits as TAs and GAs and have been organizing to join the GSEU for several years.
Out of the approximately 800 RAs who work at Stony Brook, about 500 have expressed their support for joining the union by signing onto the RA unionization mission statement.
Several RAs as well as union officials and elected officials chastised the university for what they believed to be union-busting and intimidation tactics carried out by the administration.
Although the GSEU had a written permit allowing them access to use the SAC auditorium for the rally, the administration had revoked that permit the Friday before the event. Any efforts to organize a union are prohibited on university property according to state and SUNY policy.
Despite the revocation of the permit for the rally, the GSEU and RAs decided to go ahead with the rally in the auditorium as planned.
“If we don’t have a place to hold our rally, we no longer have our freedom of speech,” said Xiao Xu, a research assistant studying cures for leukemia.
The administration eventually decided to allow the GSEU to hold the rally in the SAC auditorium after arriving at a compromise with union officials. “Our friends who are elected officials and legislatures helped us and put pressure on the university to allow us to hold our rally,” said Xu.
Several local officials were present at the rally including State Senator Craig Johnson, State Assemblymen Marc Alessi and Pat Eddington and representatives for Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy and Congressman Tim Bishop.
Many of the officials expressed dismay at what they perceived to be the university’s intimidation tactics in preventing the RAs from unionizing.
“The Research Foundation is acting like a schoolyard bully. When you dealt with a schoolyard bully you got your big brother or sister and you went back and kicked the bully’s ass,” said Chris Shelton, a representative for the CWA, to wild applause. “Well we’re coming back to kick some ass.”
Administration officials were unavailable for comment at press time, despite several calls and emails.
Although SUNY is bound by state law to ensure that its workers and not subjected to union-busting pressure tactics, the SUNY Research Foundation is a private corporation and claims to be a separate entity.
“SUNY respects the right to organize. So should every SUNY entity, including the Research Foundation,” said George Bloom, president of the CWA Local 1104. “The past lies and intimidation by the SUNY RF, which is a research institution supposedly interested in public service and the pursuit of truth, were outrageous.”