FAQs on Research Assistant Collective Bargaining
Questions for this site were provided by various students and student groups. Responses were collected by students and the UW-Madison Administration, and were agreed upon by student representatives of the TAA, ASM, CAPE, and others before publication. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of questions, and ASM will be updating this site as new information becomes available. Please send any additional questions or any feedback to the Graduate Student Caucus of the ASM. A website with related FAQs designed for advisors and principle investigators who work with RAs will be posted by University Communications.
University Communications also maintains a website for the campus community on Research Assistants Collective Bargaining
Questions (Last Updated: August 7th, 2009)
Timeline and Process
Timeline and process
Q. When could representation take effect?
A. The legislation takes effect July 1, 2010. The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) has not yet adopted administrative rules for the representation process. Until WERC adopts such rules, there will be uncertainty as to how the process will work.The WERC General Counsel believes that reasonable people could disagree about what may or may not be permitted before that date, but believes it is quite clear that no request for a union to be certified as the collective bargaining representative of the RAs could be filed before July 1, 2010.
Q. What is the difference between the union formation process for RAs compared to other groups of State employees?
A. Normally, a union wishing to represent State workers must by law collect authorization cards from at least 30% of workers before the union can request that WERC conduct a secret ballot election where workers vote on whether they wish to be represented by the union. In the RA case, the Wisconsin Legislature decided that a union could become the collective bargaining representative if a majority of RAs sign an authorization card indicating they wish to be represented by the union filing the cards.
Q. When could the card collection process start?
A. In theory, immediately. However, the caveat is that because WERC has not issued rules yet, any cards collected before those rules are finalized may or may not be valid under whatever rules are ultimately issued. Organizations wishing to represent Research Assistants will have to decide if collecting cards before rules are issued is a good use of their time.
Q. Are there any indications from WERC as to when they may issue process guidance?
A. Beyond RA Collective Bargaining, the state budget had many provisions that have implications for WERC. The Commission is examining the new laws this summer. WERC General Counsel believes that because of the explicit instructions in the budget that WERC will adopt administrative rules, and begin that process sometime around October.
Q. What labor organizations are eligible to represent RAs?
A. Any labor organization that can get a majority of RAs to indicate that the organization is the preferred choice for collective bargaining representation is eligible. This means beyond the TAA, any other unions such as the UAW are free to make their case. A group of RAs could decide to create their own labor organization and collect cards from other RAs. There is no requirement that a labor organization representing RAs be affiliated with any national labor organization.
Q. Who are the groups or state/federal offices that will have opinions/interpretations of the rules, and which ones have opinions that carry legal weight?
A. The WERC will be the sole administrative agency that can interpret of the new law and the administrative rules that WERC will likely adopt.
Q. How many "RAs" does the UW think it has?
A. Approximately 2,500 at UW-Madison.
Q. How many "RAs" according to the budget’s definition does the UW have?
A. The budget’s definition of an RA is essentially the same as that of the UW-Madison, except that the legislation excludes the approximately 700 international students on F-1 and J-1 visas from bargaining.
Q. Roughly, how are the RA numbers broken down by department (or division, or college, if dept is too messy)?
A. RAs are spread across campus, but for the most part are located in the following four schools/colleges. Other units have much smaller numbers of RAs. As this table indicates, the majority of RAs are in the physical and biological sciences.
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Q. How are students on F-1 and J-1 visas affected?
A. They are not eligible to be part of a bargaining unit.
Q. What does it mean for the 700 RAs on F-1 or J-1 visas to not be part of the bargaining unit? Do they currently receive the same contract as RAs who are either US citizens or permanent residents? If the RA contract was negotiated by collective bargaining, would F-1 and J-1 RAs receive that contract or would their contract be determined by some other process? Are TAs and PAs who may be on an F-1 or J-1 visa members of the TA/PA bargaining unit? If so, why does the RA bargaining unit exclude them? If not, do F-1 and J-1 TAs/PAs pay the same member dues as other TAs and PAs, and how is their contract determined?
A. F1 and J1 visa students are excluded from the bargaining unit under the language inserted into the statutes. This means that they would not be covered by the collective bargaining agreement that an RA union would negotiate. In that F1 and J1 visa students would not be part of the bargaining unit and not covered by the contract, they would not be dues-payers. F1 and J1 visa students who work as TAs and PAs are included in the bargaining unit that the TAA represents. This is a distinction between the to-be-established RA bargaining unit and the TA-PA bargaining unit. There are roughly 100 F1 and J1 TAs and about 175 F1 and J1 PAs. As F1 and J1 visa student-workers are included in the TAA bargaining unit and covered by the contract, they pay the same 1.5% dues that all members of the bargaining unit contribute. The University requested the language excluding F1 and J1 visa student workers from the RA collective bargaining unit because of concerns about federal regulations affecting graduate students on F-1 and J-1 visas. The TAA objected to the exclusion of RAs on F1 and J1 visas. At this point it is not clear how stipends will be set for RAs not covered by collective bargaining. The competitiveness of funding for all students will remain a priority for graduate programs.
Q. After the RAs/TAs/PAs, what other grad students are out there? How many grad students are outside of the system because they just pay their tuition?
A. Other graduate student appointment titles at UW-Madison are Fellow and Trainee. In the Fall of 2008-09, there were 8,710 graduate students and 2,510 professional students. During the same period, there were 1,956 TA appointments, 922 PA appointments and 2,537 RA appointments. The other graduate students were fellows, trainees, or were self- or third-party funded.
Q. Does the definition of Research Assistant in 111.81 preclude professional students from being in the RA collective bargaining unit, or is the distinction between "graduate" and "professional" student only made in the University?
A. We believe that professional students who are RAs are included in the bargaining unit. The distinction between graduate and professional students, no matter its source, is more about student status than worker status. In that RA is a classification of workers and about employment, the student distinction between graduates and professionals is subsumed by the clarity of employment status. As an example, where law students (professionals) work as PAs, they are part of the current TAA bargaining unit and covered by the contract. Of course, none of this applies to people under the title of "fellow" or "scholar," since they are not defined as workers under the statutes, and would not be part of the bargaining unit for RAs (however, RAs who are also, for example, fellows are included in the bargaining unit as workers under their RA designation).
Q. How do UW-Extension RAs fit in?
A. Currently, UW-Extension does not have any RAs.
Q. How is the RA pay rate determined now?
A. The Graduate School’s Academic Planning Council, a shared governance body with faculty, staff, and student representation, sets the RA rate each year. The RA rate is also used to calibrate internal fellowship stipends and to determine the threshold for non-resident tuition remission and fringes for RAs, fellows, and trainees.
Q. How many RAs are funded by "state" dollars, either GPR or anything else? How does that compare to TAs and to PAs?
A. Only about 5% of RAs are funded on state dollars; the remaining approximately 95% of RAs are supported by gifts and grants. By contrast, approximately 75% of TAs and PAs are supported by state funds.
Q. What other funding sources are used for RAs?
A. As stated above, the vast majority of RAs are funded on gifts and grants, most of them from federal agencies.
Q. How many departments supplement their base RA pay?
A. Graduate programs, particularly in the sciences, recruit students to UW-Madison with RAships using a percentage of the 100% RA rate to meet the national and international stipend level competitive in their field. In many cases, this percentage is 60% or more of the 100% rate. Many programs also use small percentage RAships to supplement other forms of funding, including other graduate assistantships, fellowships, or traineeships.
Q. How many RAs are funded for 9 months? 11 months? 12 months?
A. Approximately 87% of RAs are on 12-month appointments. The other 13% are on 9-month appointments. Many of the 9-month RAs also have summer appointments in addition to their academic appointment.
Q. What is the difference between a 12-month appointment and a 9-month appointment for an RA? How does a summer appointment work? Is the take-home pay over the course of a year different for a 12-month appointment and a 9-month appointment with a summer appointment? (Assuming the same appointment percentage (say 50%) was used for the entire year). Why would an RA be on one or the other?
A. RA appointments, like faculty appointments, can be either annual ("A-basis") or academic year ("C-basis"). In general, the basis of the student position follows that of the supervising faculty member and/or the culture of the division of the appointment, with individuals in the Physical and Biological Sciences usually on annual appointments. Students on academic year appointments, mainly but not exclusively in the Social Sciences and Arts and Humanities, may also hold summer appointments (each month’s stipend equivalent to 1/9 of the academic year stipend), potentially making their full-year stipend roughly equivalent to that of annual appointees. The monthly take-home pay of A- and C-basis appointments will differ in part because of health insurance premium deductions. The current 50% rate for an annual RA is $20,184.The current 50% rate for an academic RA is $16,506.
Q. What role does NIH/NSF/etc currently play in setting the RA rate?
A. Based on NIH guidelines, the Graduate School has approved a policy that the total cost for a Research Assistant (RA) on NIH funding including stipend, tuition remission, and fringe benefits (health insurance) cannot exceed the 0 year NIH NRSA postdoctoral fellow/trainee stipend plus associated fringe benefit costs (health insurance).
Q. Beyond wages and benefits (such as health insurance, child care, sick leave, vacation leave, catastrophic leave), on what do unions and employers bargain?
A. The scope of collective bargaining can also include things like working conditions, grievances, and fair treatment, in addition to other subjects that represented workers or the employer determine that they would like to see addressed in a collective bargaining agreement, or contract.
Q. Which of the UW’s “peer institutions” are RAs represented by a union?
A. Only one of UW’s official peer institutions collectively bargains with its RAs. (See attached table.)
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Q. What are some other universities where RAs are represented by a union?
A. University of Oregon (GTFF; AFT Local 3544)
University of Florida (GAU; AFT)
Temple University (TUGSA; AFT Local 6290)
University of Massachusetts – Amherst (GEO; UAW Local 2322)
University of Massachusetts – Lowell, Boston (GEO; UAW Local 1596)
University of Iowa (COGS; UE Local 896)
University of Rhode Island (GAU)
State University of New York (CWA)