Board: Oregon State grad students can be organized

CORVALLIS, Ore. — A state agency has paved the way for efforts to unionize additional graduate student workers at Oregon State University.

The Oregon Employment Relations Board has ruled that all graduate research assistants at the university qualify as public employees under the law and therefore have the right to union representation.

The 2-1 decision ends a lengthy battle between the university and the Coalition of Graduate Employees, American Federation of Teachers Local 6069, over the legal status of about 770 student workers and opens the door for a certification election.

AFT Local 6069 already represents some 900 graduate students who work for the university, most of them in the role of teaching assistants. But OSU had been resisting efforts to define most graduate research assistants as employees, saying their work primarily was in pursuit of their academic degree.

The union saw it differently.

“It’s a really arbitrary distinction,” said Local 6069 President Wren Keturi, a master’s student in public health who works as a teaching assistant in women’s studies. “I was very happy that the Employment Relations Board, a high decision-making body, has reaffirmed what we believed all along — that graduate research assistants are adding value to the university through their labor.”

The Coalition of Graduate Employees launched a push to expand the bargaining unit in March, when it filed a petition with the Employment Relations Board after collecting signed authorization cards from nearly two-thirds of the unrepresented grad assistants.

Oregon State pushed back, taking its case to an administrative law judge who ruled in the university’s favor in August.

But the decision appears to settle the argument. Steve Clark, the vice president for university relations and marketing, said the school would not attempt to contest the Employment Relations Board’s ruling and will await the outcome of the certification vote.

The unrepresented grad assistants already receive comparable wages and benefits to the union workers, Clark said, so there won’t be any financial fallout for the university. But there might be an impact on the relationship between grad students and their professors.

“We don’t know what all the ramifications are,” Clark said. “The question we’ll be evaluating over the next several months is how do we work with these graduate students, how do we communicate with these graduate students if the rules change?”

Eben Pullman, the Oregon field coordinator for the American Federation of Teachers, said the state labor board is expected to set a date for the certification election soon and will mail ballots directly to the unrepresented grad assistants.

The election could come as early as next month, Pullman said, and given the results of last spring’s authorization vote, he’s confident of the outcome. If the unrepresented graduate assistants vote to join the union, it would swell the bargaining unit to nearly 1,700 workers, bolstering the union’s clout on campus.

“It’s great to see those workers will have a right to vote to have a union and their choices will be respected by the university,” he said.

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