Graduate Researchers United FAQ

What is a union and why do we need one?

A union is a democratic organization led by workers who join together and use their collective power to have a voice in their workplace. Unions have the ability to negotiate from a position of strength with employers over wages, benefits, workplace health and safety, job training and other work-related issues. Unions also serve an important role making sure that management acts fairly and treats its workers with respect.

As graduate workers, we're not just advancing our education, we’re conducting valuable research that prevents and cures disease, bolsters the reputation of OHSU, and provides immeasurable benefits for our community. The reality is that we are students and workers. And like all workers, we deserve recognition and respect.

How is a union different from other organizations on campus like the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) or the Alliance for Visible Diversity in Science (AVDS)?

Both the GSO and AVDS are student interest groups. They can ask the administration for things, but the administration is under no obligation to acquiesce. And if anyone who has been here the past few years, knows that they often decline to agree to any of our requests, usually with a hand-wavey excuse. By contrast, being part of a union allows us to collectively bargain over wages, work conditions and benefits, which become part of a legally binding contract. After it’s signed, OHSU can’t take away the items addressed in the contract, and if our contract is violated, there is a grievance procedure to address the violations. Collective bargaining agreements are legally binding.

Why form our union with AFSCME?

More than 6,500 OHSU employees are members of AFSCME. By becoming part of AFSCME, we would have the support of OHSU employees and another 1.6 million AFSCME members nationwide, which is especially important when bargaining our contract. AFSCME Oregon Council 75 Executive Director Stacey Chamberlain also sits on the Board of Governors at OHSU.

Do union workers get higher wages and better benefits?

Yes. Workers who are union members earn 26.2 percent more than non-union workers. The difference is even greater for women and people of color. Women and African Americans represented by unions earn between 29.7 and 33.1 percent more than their non-union counterparts. And Latino workers with the union advantage make 47.1 percent more than those not represented by a union.

If we gain employment at a union shop after graduation, we will also be more likely to have access to health care and pension benefits. Ninety-five percent of union members have health insurance and a pension plan available — versus approximately 68 percent (health insurance) and 63 percent (pension) of those not in a union.

What have other graduate worker unions accomplished?

University of California graduate workers are unionized and have been very successful. The University of Washington graduate workers have a very comprehensive overview of the changes they made when they unionized ( Many east coast private schools are unionized. Portland State University recently unionized, and OHSU is now the only school in Oregon that is not unionized. That's about to change.

What is the process for forming a union?

  1. Develop an organizing committee led by graduate student workers.
  2. Assess our colleagues and collect union authorization cards from an overwhelming majority (50%+1 minimum, 70% or 182 + preferably).
  3. Submit the authorization cards to the Oregon Employee Relations Board and demand recognition from the OHSU administration.
  4. Set our priorities and prepare to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with OHSU. (The length of a CBA varies but is typically between 2-3 years.)
  5. Select and train stewards to help with contract enforcement and representation.

What is collective bargaining and how does it work?

Collective bargaining is the process of negotiation between employees and their employer over wages, work conditions, benefits and other issues involving compensation and rights.

A committee of our co-workers — chosen by us — sits down and hammers out an agreement known as a "union contract" on every issue of concern to our bargaining unit. The committee sits at the bargaining table as equals with management.

The majority of members must approve the agreement before it can become accepted as a contract.

Collective bargaining is not the only power we will have as a union. As a union, we would establish a Labor-Management Committee that would meet regularly with the administration and relevant department heads. In these meetings we can issues and initiatives as they come up. (AFSCME-represented employees at OHSU were able to create the Career and Workplace Enhancement Center through their Labor/Management Committee which provides courses, career & conflict counseling, etc. Now, the funding for this Center is protected in their union contract.)

Does having a union mean there will be strikes?

No. A strike is just one tactic available to workers to pressure their employer and is a tactic of last resort. The decision to strike is made locally by you and your fellow graduate workers.

AFSCME members have rarely found it necessary to strike to achieve dignity on the job. Members always make the decision whether they should strike. In most cases, a strong, well-organized local will not have to strike.

Sounds like a lot of work. Who would be handling everything?

The power of a union depends on its participants.  A union is only as strong as its members. The more members engaged, the more powerful the union.

AFSCME provides experts to support us in every phase of our union, including negotiators who will help us negotiate our collective bargaining agreement. Full-time staff are on hand to provide support, keep an eye on local and federal legislation that might affect us, and alert us of union-provided resources and benefits. We will select our colleagues to be trained as stewards (contract experts) and union representatives will also be available to support them. After we negotiate our first contract, we will elect fellow student workers to serve as officers for our local union. Officers set budget priorities and decide whether grievances should proceed to arbitration.

Your level of participation is up to you, but stronger unions tend to have greater participation of rank and file members.

How much will this cost me?

Union dues are 1.25% of our pay (minimum $32/month). Our dues cover resources like full-time support staff, attorneys and lobbying for pro-worker legislation. We do not pay dues until our first contract is ratified by the membership. All student workers will be represented and receive the benefits of the union contract regardless of whether they are dues-paying members. However, local unions without dues-paying members are generally weaker and have less strength at the bargaining table.

Can OHSU afford to pay graduate students a livable wage and will this hurt my lab?

OHSU has an annual operating budget of $2.8 billion. The issue is allocation. Administrators justify paying graduate workers less by pushing a narrative that our labor doesn't count as work. Standing together as a union, we can demand recognition and respect for our work.

Most labs have the funds, they just aren’t currently allocating them to students. Implementation of our contract will leave sufficient time for labs to budget. Furthermore, there are already safeguards in place for struggling labs.

Will the union hurt my relationship with my PI?

Studies indicate that unions improve relationships with faculty and management. A 2013 survey of PhD students at eight public research institutions showed that in addition to higher stipends the unionized students gave their advisors higher ratings for treating them as equals and accepting differing opinions. Another study shows that faculty support graduate unions and do not inhibit their work or ability to advise, refuting claims by university administration that unionization causes friction. Also, where relationships with PIs are tense now, a contract will help clarify issues and allow for more clear communication and ways to address problems.

Any inappropriate behavior, such as intimidation or retaliation, should be reported to a member of the organizing committee or AFSCME organizer, Jesse Koklas at [email protected]

Should we expect more than training and a stipend?

Don’t sell yourself short! There’s a reason they can’t just grab someone off the street and plop them in a lab. We all have spent years and tens of thousands of dollars going through undergrad to handle graduate level work. The very fact that we are trainable in these advanced techniques is a skill and reason enough for OHSU to pay us a livable wage. Furthermore, our data and publications lead to grants that bring in millions of dollars for the university every year.

Look at it this way: A student getting $28,500/year receives $13.70/hr for a 40 hr work week. By 2021, that will be less than minimum wage in Portland Metro. (The OHSU internal minimum is $15/hr.) Additionally, the cost of living in Portland is in the top 30% of the country. A recent survey by the Neuroscience Graduate Program found that the average student is paying $900/month in living expenses. We are people with advanced degrees doing professional work, and we’re not even making enough to meet the standard 1/3 of income for rent.

What if I'm not a graduate student?

This particular union is for PhD students at OHSU who are receiving paid stipends. Research employees can also unionize with AFSCME but would be in a separate bargaining unit and need to show a majority interest before gaining recognition. For more info, complete the contact form here.