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Research Assistants of the SUNY-ESF College Form Union with Communications Workers of America

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Graduate student Research Assistants of the State University of New York (SUNY) College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) seek voluntary recognition by the university after a supermajority signed cards in favor of forming a union

New York, NY. – Today, graduate student Research Assistants of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) hand delivered a letter to President Joanie Mahoney’s office demanding voluntary recognition after a majority of them signed cards indicating their desire to form a union with the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Their union, ESF Research Assistants Union (RAU)-CWA, is seeking voluntary recognition to begin bargaining for a fair contract that raises Research Assistants’ base pay, cuts burdensome student fees and ensures transparency for how existing fees are spent, provides affordable health insurance and uninterrupted insurance coverage, establishes a formal grievance procedure, ensures paid leave and reasonable accommodations for parents and caretakers, and provides legal protection and financial support for international graduate Research Assistants. The union plans to file for an election with the National Labor Relations Board should the university management refuse to voluntarily recognize the union.

The university relies on the Research Assistants to conduct crucial research, run labs, teach and assist students, and more. Despite the essential role they play, these workers have been saddled with severe economic hardships resulting from low pay and burdensome student fees, as well as poor working conditions including lack of affordable and adequate healthcare coverage, workplace harassment, and being overworked without additional compensation.

“It is completely unfair that we are expected to live on a stipend that is insufficient for the cost of living in Syracuse. Almost every day, I am worried about how I am going to afford basic needs like food. As if that was not bad enough, the very little money we make goes back to the University through all of these additional student fees for costs that should be covered by tuition. For instance, we have to pay upwards of $300 to register for a single class,” said Adam Mitchell, a Master’s Student and a Research Assistant in the Environmental Resources Engineering Department. “None of us deserve the treatment we are receiving. The university is exploiting our passion and dedication to our studies and our work and we are coming together to form a union to put a stop to it.”

SUNY-ESF Research Assistants current pay is significantly less than the living or minimum wage in Syracuse. Most student workers have to find other means to make ends meet including additional employment. Making matters significantly worse are the burdensome student fees that offset the low pay the Research Assistants receive.

In many cases, these onerous fees fund systems and services that graduate workers rely on to do their jobs, such as the software programs used to collect and assess student assignments and submit grades. This constitutes a “pay-to-work” system in which employees are being charged for the maintenance and upkeep of the workplace., meaning these workers must pay a portion of their salary back to their employers just to do their jobs. The result is many of these workers living in poverty and having to resort to extreme measures to make ends meet including taking out loans, skipping meals, or living in their cars.

The low pay and mandatory fees are even more problematic for international students who make up over 30 percent of the Research Assistant population and are legally restricted from earning additional income through secondary employment or other means.

“It is demoralizing to think that the institution we dedicate so much of our lives to does not care about us and is only focused on taking advantage of our intellect and hard work. I am one of the many grad students who have to work a second job to be able to afford to live,” said Elinor Hanjian, a Research Assistant in the Environmental Studies Department. “It has become nearly impossible to maintain any sense of work/life balance while being constantly overworked as a Research Assistant, having a second job, and conducting my own research. On top of our financial challenges, the physical, mental, and emotional burden we face is making it unsustainable for many of us to continue to pursue our academic goals.”

Currently, close to 5,000 graduate student workers at SUNY, the largest state university system in the nation, are members of the Graduate Student Employees Union (GSEU), CWA Local 1104, a statewide union of teaching assistants and other graduate student workers. Unlike other graduate student workers at SUNY, who are paid through New York State, Research Assistants at SUNY-ESF are funded through a private foundation. Thus, they are not eligible to be members of GSEU. By forming a union, the Research Assistants are seeking to fill this gap in representation and fight in solidarity with their fellow student employees for better working conditions and fair treatment.

“These student workers are engaged in highly important research that makes valuable contributions to solving our planet's pressing problems and building a sustainable future for all of us. The poor working conditions and mistreatment the Research Assistants face doesn’t only impact their well being, but it also diminishes the importance of the work that they do,” said CWA Local 1104 President Tom Benedetto. “We are calling on the university to acknowledge their value by recognizing their union and bargaining a fair contract.”

SUNY-ESF Research Assistants are the latest group of workers to add to a growing trend of organizing within higher education institutions, including Research Assistants at Stony Brook University, another SUNY campus, who formed their union with GSEU-CWA Local 1104. The Research Assistants at Stony Brook successfully won union recognition despite heavy resistance from the Administration, which included hiring a union busting firm and launching an aggressive anti-union campaign to thwart the workers’ organizing efforts. Despite the university’s prior anti-union behavior and lack of meaningful action to address the workers’ concerns, SUNY-ESF Research Assistants remain hopeful for voluntary recognition. However, they are prepared to fight for their rights as workers and the respect and dignity they deserve.


About CWA: The Communications Workers of America represents working people in telecommunications, customer service, media, airlines, health care, public service and education, manufacturing, tech, and other fields. @cwaunion

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