By Tanzil Chowdhury
On an exceptionally hot day last summer, I packed up my car in Arizona, where I had earned my degree in materials science and engineering from Arizona State University. I drove west, thrilled to start on my Ph.D. and work as a graduate student researcher at UC Berkeley.
This was before the university had secured accolades as the top college in the world — but it was still immeasurably important to me and my family. I was employed at one of the most prestigious, high-tech research institutions on the planet, helping to push the frontiers of scientific understanding and contribute to projects that could transform the global economy.
And then, shortly after I started, I received an email from the university informing me that my pay was so low that I was eligible for CalFresh, the state’s food stamps program. Sure, I already knew that over half of my paycheck was going to rent each month. And I was keenly aware that I was spending nearly as much time worrying about making ends meet as I was on my research. But that email struck me — I wasn’t getting paid enough to be able to afford my own groceries without government assistance?
I had already heard stories of my co-workers being berated to the point of tears in front of their colleagues because, as international students, their English fluency wasn’t up to their advisors’ standards. But for whatever reason, all of that just seemed normal — like difficult working conditions were the tax I had to pay to have this job.
And perhaps that is the most insidious thing about how the University of California treats its nearly 17,000 student researchers. It’s not just that we’re treated as expendable cogs in the machine of an R1 research institution — it’s that we’re made to feel like our exploitation is normal. Or, even worse, that we ought to feel lucky to work in these conditions because we’re given the opportunity to work at UC Berkeley or UCSF.
The more I thought about these conditions the more I thought about my parents, immigrants from Bangladesh. While they don’t often talk about it, I know the immense hardships they experienced in moving to the United States, away from their family, friends and way of life, and I know that the main reason they did so was because they wanted my sister and I to have greater opportunities than they did — because they wanted our lives to be better than theirs.
Though it breaks my heart to think about it, from where I stand right now, my parents’ dream does not seem to be coming true. Since beginning as a GSR, I’ve become acutely aware of the reality facing most people of my generation — the first generation in American history to be worse off than our parents — in that my prospects as a working person are only getting worse. I found myself slipping into further exploitation for menial wages at a university whose policies have made it harder for people of color and people from low-income backgrounds to thrive. It was a sobering experience.
Rather than give up, I decided I was going to do what countless workers in this country have done throughout history — talk to my co-workers, organize and demand fair treatment. After all, these were the tactics that won all of us an eight-hour day, a five-day week, health and safety regulations in the workplace and much more.
Academic unions specifically have a clear track record of improving compensation and working conditions, and are the one ally student workers have when experiencing serious harassment or discrimination at work. Thankfully, many had already started this fight by organizing Student Researchers United, a group of student researchers looking to win decent pay and working conditions and to make the University of California more equitable.
Their mission lined up exactly with my own: a recognition that something is terribly broken about the way the University of California treats its student researchers, followed by the ardent belief that the only way we can fix it is through the democratic process of forming a union and bargaining collectively for our rights: a livable wage for all student researchers, a genuine grievance process for those experiencing discrimination or harassment and protections for international students.
Despite the move to remote work, we reached out to thousands of our co-workers at UC’s 10 campuses and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, talking to them about their unique concerns and asking them to sign cards in support of forming a union. By May, we had achieved a supermajority — over 12,000 student researchers chose to form a union in one of the biggest labor filings in recent American history. It didn’t matter what campus you were on, what you were researching or what your background was, nearly 70% of all student researchers agreed: We form the backbone of UC’s research mission, and we should be spending our time focused on our work, not on how we’re going to make ends meet.
Soon after, the Public Employment Relations Board verified our majority and notified the University of California that it was time to recognize SRU/UAW and meet us at the bargaining table. However, instead of voluntarily recognizing us and starting contract negotiations, UC lawyers attempted to seek an extension to the objection deadline. They then objected to the formation of our union, arguing that more than 5,000 student researchers should be excluded based on their funding source.
In a brief filed with PERB, UC lawyers from Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton LLP argued that trainees and fellows — student researchers who are paid under National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation or Department of Defense training grants or fellowships — are not employees, and do not form a “community of interest” with other student researchers.
But their argument is false: Trainees and fellows do the same kinds of work and are bound by the same rules and working conditions as other student researchers. It is unacceptable to thousands of UC fellows and trainees to be told they do not count as workers and have no labor protections.
Personally, as a researcher in the process of applying for these very same fellowships, it feels as though the University of California is forcing me to choose between the security of union membership and the prestige and funding support of a national fellowship.
I’m left wondering: Why are they so intent on denying us the fundamental rights that all workers should have? I cannot know the answer to that question. But what I do know is that I deserve respect. I deserve to be able to afford housing and groceries each month. My co-workers and I deserve to feel safe from harassment and discrimination in our workplaces. Student researchers deserve to have our voices heard at the university where we produce prestigious research. In short, we deserve a union, and I won’t stop fighting until we have one.
Tanzil Chowdhury is an organizer with Student Researchers United and a materials science and engineering PhD student researcher at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab studying semiconducting nanomaterials.