SUNY Stony Brook research assistants seeking contract

Monday, November 30, 2009

By Allison Roselle
On legislativegazette.com

Dozens of union workers and graduate students rallied on Nov. 20 at the entrance of the State University of New York Research Foundation demanding an initial, "fair" contract for graduate research assistant students.

The protestors carried signs with slogans that read "no contracts, no peace" and "support RA Union," while chanting, "Who are we? RA Union. What do we want? Contracts."

A large, blow-up "corporate pig," dressed in a top hat and bow tie with dollar signs in his eyes and a cigar in his mouth, stood in front of the Research Foundation doors as about three dozen protesters rallied on the sidewalk.

The RA Union, which includes about 740 SUNY Stony Brook student research assistants through the Communications Workers of America Local 1104, has been in the process of negotiating with the Research Foundation to secure a contract that provides fee waivers, job security and medical, dental and vision benefits since the union was formed in Dec. 2008.

Many of the graduate students' arguments were heard through the voice of Kasia Sawicka, a graduate research assistant at Stony Brook University and member of the RA Union.

"The majority of us are masters and Ph.D students," Sawicka said. "We are employed by the Research Foundation. What we want in our contract is basically the same things people want all over the world…livable wages, some sort of job security and health coverage."

Protestors at the rally included representatives from New York State United Teachers, Public Employees Federation, United University Professions and the Civil Service Employees Association.

The rally featured speaker George Bloom, president of CWA Local 1104, who said that the Research Foundation is nowhere to be found when it "comes time to do something."

"All [the research assistants] are looking for is a decent wage [and] some benefits…professors can't just dismiss you and say you're out of a job," Bloom added. "They have to show just cause, just like we have in every other job out there."

Cathy Kaszluga, vice president for corporate communications at the SUNY Research Foundation, said the foundation is committed to bargaining with the union and is abiding by the rules and regulations put forward by the National Labor Relations Act. "Until the time when a mutually agreeable first contract can be reached, we will continue to meet with the union to reach an initial contract."

Since the Research Foundation is a private, non-profit corporation that manages grants on behalf of SUNY, funding for the research assistants is not allocated through the state, according to Kaszluga.

Each of these grants must be factored into the total cost to run a sponsored project when the union requests funding from their sponsor. This includes all funds used to support the research assistants working on sponsored awards.

Sawicka said rent on Long Island is expensive, and the wages research assistants are given do not match minimum wages downstate. She said the research assistants proposed a "very comprehensive, non-discrimination" article, but the Research Foundation "resented it."

The plan they proposed would save the Research Foundation money if it cut lobbyist funding and offer research assistants a more reliable payment plan, according to Sawicka. "What we could cost them is much, much less than what they're spending on other activities."

The RA Union recently sent a letter to John O'Connor, president of the Research Foundation, which urged him and his negotiators to agree on a contract with the research assistants as soon as possible.

"Obama said, 'It's our time' and it is our time," Bloom said as cheers roared from the picketers. "We're going to unionize people that need people to recognize that they need help, and we're going to get out there…and do that. "We're going to organize them all through the state and we're going to fight this research foundation."

The Research Foundation has been meeting with the union once every two weeks at SUNY Stony Brook to negotiate a contract since Dec. 2008, according to Kaszluga. Nine out of 40 articles in the contract have been agreed to.