GRU Letter to Faculty

Dear OHSU Faculty,

We are writing to give you more information about our union: Graduate Researchers United (GRU). We also want to inform you of the major articles GRU has proposed during bargaining. As you read about our proposals, we would like to remind you that this is a negotiation process and that we do not expect our final contract to reflect our initial offers. Like many negotiations, the initial offers from both sides are not aligned, with the goal of ultimately reaching a compromise.

In August of 2018, the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB) certified our union to include all OHSU PhD students in the Schools of Medicine, Nursing, and Public Health receiving a stipend. As only employees may unionize, this means that the State of Oregon recognized us as employees of OHSU. OHSU filed an objection to the ERB certification on the grounds that we are not employees but dropped this objection in December of 2018. This means that OHSU publicly recognizes us as employees, as well. Furthermore, the Management bargaining team has verbally acknowledged our classification as employees at the bargaining table. For clarity and consistency, we refer to our members as graduate researchers (GRs).

GRU would like to create a place where anyone, no matter their identity, background, or circumstances, can succeed as a scientist. To this end, our proposals are motivated by the need to provide GRs with financial stability, an authentic work-life balance, and protection from unsafe or abusive environments. Our intention is to negotiate a contract that makes OHSU a safer and more equitable place for graduate researchers. This contract will cover benefits and policies that relate to our employment conditions here at OHSU. 

We would like to further elaborate on key issues that have been proposed at the bargaining table and give information as to why GRU proposed them as well as updates on a few issues that have been jointly agreed to by both bargaining teams.. 

Non-discrimination

This article protects GRs from sexual harassment and discrimination due to their membership of a protected class. If a GR experiences discrimination or harassment, this article  gives them multiple options for reporting and next steps that include using the confidential advocacy program (CAP), the Title IX office, and the Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity office (AAEO). Additionally, a union steward or CAP representative may accompany a GR to a Title IX/AAEO filing or grievance and arbitration proceeding if a GR decided to pursue either of those options. Nothing in this article prohibits GRs from using the current student mistreatment policy available to them if they feel more comfortable with it, and nothing prevents them from accessing resources available by law. This article was agreed to and signed by GRU and Management on January 7th. 

Healthcare

One of GRU’s main goals is to provide more affordable healthcare. The current student health plan has a $6,000 out-of-pocket maximum, which is unaffordable for most GRs. GRU is interested in any solution that can bring down this cost to students. One option that Management has indicated they would be open to providing is placing GRs on the lowest-tier employee health insurance plan which has a lower out-of-pocket maximum and comparable provider coverage. Another option the teams have discussed is an OHSU funded health savings account to help GRs on the student plan afford the out-of-pocket maximum. 

GRU is also interested in maintaining affordable health care coverage for dependents. Currently, SOM GRs can have up to a total of $400 of dependent coverage reimbursed. GRU would like to see a comparable affordable option in the contract.

Parental Leave 

GRU proposed 12 weeks of paid parental leave for the birth or adoption of a child in addition to the 12 weeks of unpaid leave that may be taken, as allowed by the Oregon Medical Family Leave Act. According to the graduate student handbook for the SOM, current policy allows 8 weeks of paid parental leave to be taken, but GRs must “modify their duties,” leaving it unclear what may or may not be expected of a GR during this time.

As of this writing, Management’s counter effectively retracts the current 8-week paid parental leave benefit by limiting all paid leave to the current status quo of 20 days intended for vacation and sick time.

Hours of work

We believe a work/life balance is critical for maintaining health and safety and for making a career in science attainable for individuals with commitments outside of the lab. To this end, GRU has proposed that GRs cannot be compelled to consistently work more than 40 hours per week. GRU is not interested in creating a cap on the number of hours a GR can choose to work, as some GRs voluntarily choose to work more than 40 hours consistently, and GRU recognizes that it may sometimes be necessary for a GR to work more than 40 hours in a given week to accomplish research goals. However, if GRs were required or pressured to work more than 40 hours per week consistently, then GRs with families, outside commitments, and certain health issues would face an undue burden that prevents good scientists from succeeding in obtaining a PhD. GRU is committed to working with Management to find mutually agreeable language on this topic during mediation. Substantial progress has been made since the article was first proposed, but the details are still in flux. 

Tax Forms 

Stipends are currently reported to the IRS on a 1099-MISC form, which is a catch-all form for unearned income. The use of this form, and specifically the inability to treat our stipends as “earned income,” causes multiple problems for GRs, including difficulties verifying income for housing, obtaining lines of credit, contributing to retirement accounts, filing taxes, and claiming tax deductions like the Earned Income Tax Credit which requires “earned income” to file. GRs are faced with the choice of filing as self-employed, thus doubling the income tax they must pay, or treating stipends as unearned income, which is ineligible for the EIC and other benefits like IRA contributions.

GRU has no interest in jeopardizing the grants that fund our members. However, because of the magnitude of this issue, GRU and Management worked together to contact the NIH for a definitive answer. The NIH responded that the NIH does not require as a term and condition of grant award any particular tax treatment of stipends. ...Moreover, NIH is not aware of any situations where the NIH has suspended or reduced grant funding because the institution reported stipends as W-2 income.” Given this response, Management has begun to offer a switch to W-2 tax forms in their proposals, in line with GRU’s interests. 

Stipends

Graduate researchers come from many backgrounds and enter graduate school with different financial obligations, such as caring for dependents; supporting a partner; costly medical conditions; and student loan debt. During graduate school, other events may arise that place financial burdens on GRs and make it difficult or impossible for those without a financial safety net to continue their training. In OHSU 2025, diversity, equity, and inclusion were named a top priority. GRU believes that, in order to realize this vision in the Ph.D programs, a stipend that is livable for those without external financial support must be offered. We believe that by offering a livable wage, OHSU can help to alleviate some of these burdens and make graduate school more accessible to talented scientists  without a financial safety net. To this end, we have proposed the following:

Our most recent offer includes a minimum stipend of $43,500 for GRs in the SOM and $32,000 for GRs in the SON and SOPH. GRs in the SON and SOPH have expressed a desire to be allowed external employment rather than receive a stipend that is on par with SOM. This proposal reflects that request. We would like to reiterate that this is a negotiation and that this number reflects the current stage of the bargaining process. Through most of the bargaining process, it would be illegal for GRU to lower the proposed stipend and then re-propose a higher stipend. This is called regressive bargaining. As a result, GRU started by proposing a high stipend to avoid engaging in illegal bargaining activities. 

OHSU has expressed its desire to be a premier research and education institute, and it is important to highlight that OHSU competes with other schools that offer higher stipends like UWashington ($34,200), UCSD ($34,000), NIH Graduate Partnerships Program (Max $40,950), UTSW($35,000), MIT ($39,391 but may vary between 15% more or 10% less), and Yale ($36,550). Schools like UVA ($30,000), Duke ($31,160), and WUSTL ($30,500) offer stipends that are on par with OHSU, but the cost of living in Charolletesville, Durham, and St. Louis are lower than the cost of living in Portland.

Management’s economic counter offers all GRs in the SOM the current post-qual SOM stipend of $32,004 but does not offer any stipend increase for GRs in the SOPH ($27,500) and SON ($24,816). If OHSU wants to attract the best applicants and allow GRs from diverse financial backgrounds to succeed, GRU believes the stipend must be raised to reflect that value.

Definition of employment

Before negotiations began, GRU and Management agreed not to bargain over purely academic matters except by mutual agreement. GRU agreed to this condition with the understanding that we would not bargain over items such as class structure, course offerings, degree requirements, or grading procedures. However, we did not waive or limit our right to bargain over mandatory subjects of bargaining, such as our working conditions, even if they have academic components to them. While our dissertation research is academic, it is also employment-based, so the conditions in which we perform that work are still subject to bargaining.

Our position, that dissertation research is employment-based work, has already been determined by an Oregon Employment Relations Board case, No. UC-04-12. In 2012, Oregon State University and the OSU graduate union, the Coalition of Graduate Employees (CGE), went to the ERB to seek a determination on whether a subset of graduate students could be added to their union. At the time, graduate students who performed dissertation-related research for their graduate research assistantships (GRAs) were not allowed in the union. Specifically, these were graduate research assistants who would “usually pursue their thesis research full-time as fulfillment of their assistantship duties” (ERB Case No. UC-04-12). These students were not TAs.

The CGE petitioned to recognize these graduate students who performed primarily dissertation research as employees so that they could be included in the union. OSU objected on the basis that these were students engaged in “research primarily to fulfill advanced degree requirements.” Instead, the ERB ruled that these graduate students were employees because the nature of the research they performed for their dissertations met the definition of employment-based work. Public employment was defined as “(1) [performing] services for another person or entity, (2) in return for wages or salary [which included the students’ taxable monthly stipend payments, tuition remission, and employer contributions to health care premiums in this case], (3) under the control or right to control of the employer” (ERB Case No. UC-04-12). Their status as having an “assistantship” was not the reason they were considered employees. The case focused on all aspects of the actual dissertation research they performed and found it to substantially resemble other employment-based research.

Furthermore, the ERB stated that “it is possible to be both a student and an employee. Nothing in the statute suggests that the two are incompatible, and we are not inclined to create such a distinction or carve out an exception where the legislature has not done so.” (ERB Case No. UC-04-12).

Although some faculty and members of the Management bargaining team may personally disagree with this finding, the legal precedent in Oregon supports GRU’s positions that GRs can be both trainees and employees and that dissertation research is employment-based work. As long as dissertations are recognized as employment, they will be considered a mandatory subject of bargaining; if they are not considered employment, they will only be covered by the contract with Management’s mutual agreement. GRU’s underlying goal with making sure dissertation work is covered by the contract is to protect graduate researchers from unfair working conditions, so we will continue to work to find mutually agreeable solutions that protect our members throughout their time at OHSU.

Explanation of Grievance and Arbitration

If the contract were to be violated, e.g., a GR is underpaid, forced to work excessive hours, or faces retaliation for taking parental leave, then they may file a grievance in order to remedy the violation. The grievance and arbitration policy is still under negotiation, but the following is the general process proposed by GRU:

  1. Once a GR knows about a violation of the contract, they have 21 days to file a grievance. Grievance about sexual harassment and discrimination may be filed at any time as the victims of these violations often take longer to come forward. Grievances are filed with the manager and the Union. If an acceptable solution can be reached between a GR and PI after the grievance is filed, then both parties sign on an agreed solution. If not, then the grievance moves to step 2.

  2. The GR, OHSU HR, any other applicable parties (e.g., the mentor), and a union representative (optional) meet to attempt to rectify the violation. If an agreement is reached, it is documented and signed by all parties. A potential solution could include mandated mentorship training for a PI, mentee training for the GR, or co-supervision of a student who has conflicts with their supervisor. If a mutually agreeable solution cannot be reached with internal OHSU involvement, then the complaint moves to arbitration. 

  3. Arbitration is a state-administered process where both GRU and OHSU present their respective positions in front of a neutral arbitrator who rules on whether the contract has been violated. The arbitrator’s decision is binding for both the GR and OHSU. 

GRU is also bargaining over benefits like Vacation and Sick Leave, Cost of Living Adjustments, Graduated Stipend Increases, External Employment, Transportation Benefits, and Materials and Equipment. If you would like to know more about these proposals, you can contact the GRU or talk to your GR. 

We recognize that certain benefits we are bargaining over are not provided to faculty. We further recognize that some of these benefits will raise the cost of a GR. GRU has proposed language that would place the burden of these costs on OHSU administration and not our mentors, but GRU has little power to dictate how these costs are distributed. Ultimately, those decisions are at the discretion of the administration.

We hope this letter has been useful to you in understanding where negotiations currently stand, what major proposals GRU has presented to OHSU, and why we have taken certain positions. We realize that it has been unclear whether faculty are allowed to discuss the union with GRs. GRs are allowed to initiate discussions with faculty and ask for the opinion of faculty during these conversations. Faculty can ask questions and discuss opinions with the GRs as long as they do not encourage or discourage participation in the union. Faculty should feel free to contact the Management bargaining team with any questions, comments, and requests. Faculty may also show support for GRU by going #blue4gru and wearing blue on Thursdays. 

What’s Next

GRU is disappointed with Management’s economic proposals which do not appropriately reflect the cost of living and healthcare in Portland. GRU has presented numerous proposals that attempt to lower the financial burden of our economic package in an effort to move towards a compromise, yet Management has not returned a counter that differs meaningfully from the status quo. Our next collective action will be to abstain from recruitment activities unless an agreement can be reached on an economic package. This means that GRs will not attend recruitment events, act as student hosts, or provide transportation for recruitment. We will instead stay in our labs or meet with prospective students to let them know why GRU has decided to take this action. Our abstention will be well publicized throughout campus and across social media.

We realize this is a big action that will have a substantial impact on our own graduate programs. However, we feel that we cannot in good faith advocate for an institution that has continually demonstrated a lack of support for GRs. 

We would like to participate in recruitment and engage with prospective students and our potential colleagues. We would like to be able to tell prospective students that OHSU is a place where the stipend is livable, the healthcare is affordable, and benefits like parental leave are codified. If the faculty would also like GRs to participate in recruitment and advocate for OHSU at recruitment events, they should encourage the Management bargaining team, and specifically Dr. Allison Fryer, to work with GRU to reach an agreement on the economic package.

If you have questions or concerns for GRU, please submit them to [email protected]. If you have questions or concerns for Management, their team can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to reach out the bargaining teams directly, the GRU bargaining team members are:

Sam Papadakis

Marc Meadows

Danielle Mathieson

Rich Posert

Management bargaining team members are: 

Wesley Phillips, Human Resources

Michelle Diorio, Human Resources

Dr. Allison Fryer, School of Medicine Dean’s Office

Richard Goranflo, School of Medicine Dean’s Office

Dr. Mary Heinricher, School of Medicine Dean’s Office

Anna Teske, Provost’s Office

Darryl Walker, Legal Counsel

Dr. Melissa Wong, Cell, Developmental and Cancer Biology

Jeff Chicoine, Miller Nash (legal counsel)

 

Signed,

Graduate Researchers United