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New York, NY. — In a major victory, an overwhelming majority, 98 percent, of graduate student Research Assistants of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) have voted for union representation with the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in an official National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election. With a union, and a voice on the job, the research assistants are preparing to bargain for a fair contract that raises their 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.
“We are all ecstatic about our victory and what it will mean for us and future research assistants to come. It would not have been possible without the strong solidarity and unity we worked hard to build. All we have ever wanted to do is to conduct our research, support students, increase our ability to build a better future for ourselves, and ensure the success of this institution that we care deeply about. With this win, we are one step closer to doing just that without the hurdles we are faced with. We are grateful for the outpouring of support and encouragement we have received from other union workers, our allies in academia, and the community at large. We are looking forward to what comes next,” said Adam Mitchell, a Master’s Student and a Research Assistant in the Environmental Resources Engineering Department.
The university relies on the Research Assistants to conduct crucial research, run labs, teach and assist students, and more. Throughout the organizing campaign, the workers expressed their concerns about low pay, burdensome student fees, and other working conditions, and how they hope to address them by working with the university’s leadership.
“The overwhelming vote in support of our union is a reflection of the fact that so many of us are struggling and committed to take collective action to improve standards for research assistants,” said Elinor Hanjian, a Research Assistant in the Environmental Studies Department. “We have led a successful campaign that we are proud of and we are pleased the administration did not interfere with our right to organize. As we head into bargaining, we hope the university continues to work with us in good faith for a contract that ensures all research assistants have a meaningful voice, dignity, and respect on the job.”
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.
“We are very excited to welcome our newest members at SUNY-ESF to our union. They fought hard and won. At a time when an unprecedented wave of worker organizing is taking place across the country, their victory adds to the momentum of higher education workers who are increasingly coming together to raise their voice and demand better. It also grows the solidarity amongst our members at SUNY and other higher-ed institutions and serves as an inspiration for SUNY workers who are currently organizing to join our union. Energized by this victory and by continuing to work together, we will make sure to keep the fight going for the best possible first contract that will raise the standard for all workers,” said CWA Local 1104 President Tom Benedetto.
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.
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.