Frequently asked questions about RAs and collective bargaining

Questions

  1. What is the process that will determine whether the research assistants (RAs) will join a union and which union would represent them?
  2. Who sets the rules for the process?
  3. What is the difference between the union formation process for RAs compared to that for other groups of state employees?
  4. When might representation take effect?
  5. When could the card-collection process start?
  6. What labor organizations are eligible to represent RAs?
  7. If no union is able to collect a sufficient number of cards to authorize representation, can the process be repeated?
  8. Are the times/places during which it would be inappropriate for RAs to engage in conversations about joining a union?
  9. Are there constraints on the faculty, staff and students on sharing their views and opinions on the topic of RAs joining a union?
  10. Which labor organizations have expressed interest in representing the RAs?
  11. If the TAA were to represent RAs, would the RAs be on the same contract and subject to the same conditions, as the teaching assistants (TAs) and project assistants (PAs)?
  12. Who will resolve disputes, such as who is an RA eligible to be represented for the purposes of collective bargaining and whether a card is legitimate?
  13. With whom would the represented RAs negotiate for their contracts?
  14. Does the definition of research assistant in Section 111.81 of Wisconsin Statutes 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?
  15. How do UW-Extension RAs fit in?
  16. How will RA stipend rates be determined if RAs are represented by a union?
  17. How is the RA pay rate determined now?
  18. What is the history of TA, PA and RA rates for the last 10 years?
  19. What is the process for approving a contract?
  20. How long does the process take?
  21. How do graduate programs determine the percentage of the 100 percent RA rate they use in stipends?
  22. How many RAs, TAs and PAs are there at UW–Madison?
  23. What is the distribution of RAs among the schools and colleges?
  24. How many RAs are currently funded by state dollars?
  25. How many TAs and PAs are currently funded on state dollars?
  26. What impact would representation have on federal grants?
  27. What impact would representation have on the portion of external grants that PIs use to support graduate students?
  28. How would representation alter the movement of students among RAships, traineeships and fellowships during their graduate career?
  29. How would the tax status of RAs change under representation?
  30. Would RA eligibility for Worker’s Compensation change under representation?
  31. How would the payment of fringe benefits on RA stipends change under representation?
  32. Who would determine issues such as vacation, sick leave and overtime?
  33. Would representation affect the rights of students to their intellectual property?
  34. How many RAs are funded for nine months? Twelve months?
  35. What is the difference between a 12-month appointment and a nine-month appointment for an RA? How does a summer appointment work? Is the take-home pay during a year different for a 12-month appointment and a nine-month appointment with a summer appointment? (Assuming the same appointment percentage — say 50 percent — was used for the entire year). Why would an RA be on one or the other?
  36. What role does NIH/NSF/etc. currently play in setting the RA rate?
  37. Beyond wages and benefits — such as health insurance, child care, sick leave, vacation leave, catastrophic leave — on what do unions and employers bargain?
  38. Why are international students on F-1 and J-1 visas not eligible to be part of a bargaining unit?
  39. Are international-student TAs and PAs currently represented by the TAA?
  40. If domestic-student RAs are unionized, how will stipends and other work conditions be set for international RAs who are not represented?
  41. Do RAs at any other institutions have union representation?

Answers

What is the process that will determine whether the research assistants (RAs) will join a union and which union would represent them?
Unions interested in representing RAs will need to ask RAs to sign cards stating that the signer wishes to be represented by that particular union. If an RA wants to be represented by the union, he or she should sign the card. If an RA does not want to be represented by the union, he or she should not sign a card. Any union that collects signed cards from more than 50 percent of the RAs will be certified by the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC) as the official representative of the RAs.
Who sets the rules for the process?
The legislative statute lays out the basic format described above. Now the WERC will format the specific administrative rules for the card collection and submission. For example, the WERC will determine when cards can be signed, how long a signed card will be valid and how the population will be defined for the purpose of determining whether a majority has signed cards. These rules have not yet been set and may not be clear until later in the fall or even spring semester. The university has no authority to set or interpret these rules.
What is the difference between the union formation process for RAs compared to that for other groups of state employees?
Normally, a union wishing to represent state workers must by law collect authorization cards from at least 30 percent of workers before the union can request that WERC conduct a secret ballot election in which 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.
When might representation take effect?
The legislation takes effect July 1, 2010, and no request for a union to be certified as a collective-bargaining representative of the RAs can be filed before that date.
When could the card-collection process start?
In theory, immediately. However, 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 RAs will have to decide if collecting cards before rules are issued is a good use of their time.
What labor organizations are eligible to represent RAs?
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. In addition, a group of RAs could decide to create its 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.
If no union is able to collect a sufficient number of cards to authorize representation, can the process be repeated?
Yes. There is no limit on how many times unions can attempt to represent RAs.
Are the times/places during which it would be inappropriate for RAs to engage in conversations about joining a union?
It is imperative that RAs, while engaged in service as a part of their appointment, refrain from conversations unrelated to the specific objectives of that appointment, e.g., research-related activities. For RAs on federal grant support, this consideration is even more critical given the accountability requirements of the federal “effort-reporting” requirement, under which principal investigators must document all of the time spent by grant-supported individuals on tasks clearly related to the sponsoring grants.
Are there constraints on the faculty, staff and students on sharing their views and opinions on the topic of RAs joining a union?
The campus believes it is essential that all faculty, staff and students who are interested have full and fair opportunity to discuss questions related to RAs joining a union. People should feel free to express their views openly, so long as those views cannot reasonably be construed to threaten, denigrate or otherwise discourage other persons from either forming or freely expressing their own views on the issues. The campus will not tolerate communications that either inhibit the free exchange of ideas or diminishes the comfort that all individuals should experience in making up their own mind on this important matter.
Which labor organizations have expressed interest in representing the RAs?
We are aware only of the Teaching Assistants Association’s (TAA) interest.
If the TAA were to represent RAs, would the RAs be on the same contract and subject to the same conditions, as the teaching assistants (TAs) and project assistants (PAs)?
RAs would have a separate contract from the TAs and PAs. If, however, a majority of each represented group votes to merge the units, there would then be one contract.
Who will resolve disputes, such as who is an RA eligible to be represented for the purposes of collective bargaining and whether a card is legitimate?
The WERC.
With whom would the represented RAs negotiate for their contracts?
The union would negotiate with the state Office of Employment Relations (OSER). This is the same process that applies to the TAs and PAs; the TAA negotiates with OSER. While the university has historically been invited to be part of the bargaining process, its role has never been more than advisory to OSER.
Does the definition of research assistant in Section 111.81 of Wisconsin Statutes 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?
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).
How do UW-Extension RAs fit in?
Currently, UW-Extension does not have any RAs.
How will RA stipend rates be determined if RAs are represented by a union?
The stipend rates would be determined through negotiations with OSER for each contract period, as they are now for TAs and PAs.
How is the RA pay rate determined now?
The Graduate School’s Academic Planning Council, a shared-governance body with faculty, staff and student representation, sets the RA rate each year to be competitive with peer universities. The RA rate is also used to calibrate internal fellowship stipends and to determine the threshold for nonresident tuition remission and fringes for RAs, fellows and trainees.
What is the history of TA, PA and RA rates for the last 10 years?
See the following table.

Table notes

  • The rates for RAs and PAs are for 12-months; RA rates are fixed, PA rates are minima
  • The rates for TAs are for 9-months; TA rates are fixed
  • The Office of State Employment Relations (OSER) and TAA have not started negotiating the contract for 2009–11; UW is using the 2006–07 rate until the 2007–2009 contract is approved
Historical Stipend Rates for Graduate Assistants
Ten-Year Full-Time Rate History
Academic Year RA PA TA Senior TA Experienced TA Regular
2009–10 $40,368 t.b.d. t.b.d. t.b.d. t.b.d.
2008–09 $39,192 t.b.d. t.b.d. t.b.d. t.b.d.
2007–08 $38,064 t.b.d. t.b.d. t.b.d. t.b.d.
2006–07 $36,960 $32,901 $30,954 $26,802 $25,788
2005–06 $36,240 $30,819 $29,226 $25,105 $23,379
2004–05 $35,544 $29,710 $28,200 $24,200 $22,525
2003–04 $34,860 $29,710 $28,200 $24,200 $22,525
2002–03 $34,176 $28,722 $28,200 $24,200 $22,525
2001–02 $32,700 $27,953 $27,905 $23,500 $21,161
2000–01 $31,584 $24,610 $27,629 $22,541 $20,951
1999–00 $30,084 $22,787 $27,084 $21,141 $19,749
What is the process for approving a contract?
After the TAA and OSER reach tentative agreement on a contract, OSER presents it to the legislative Joint Committee on Employment Relations (JCOER) for review. JCOER can approve or reject the proposed contract. If they approve it, the entire legislature will pass a bill approving the contract which goes to the governor for signing.
How long does the process take?
It varies from contract to contract. For example, the TAA and the state are currently operating under the 2006-07 contract because the 2007-09 (July 1, 2007-June 30, 2009) contract has not been approved. The TAA submitted its proposal for the 2007-09 (ending June 30, 2009) contract in May, 2007. OSER and the TAA began negotiating in November, 2007 and reached a tentative agreement in November, 2008.  The contract is not yet in effect because it has not yet been approved by the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Employment Relations (JCOER).  JCOER is expected to take action on the proposed contract in later September.  Until that occurs, the University and the TAA have been operating under the 2005-2007 contract.
How do graduate programs determine the percentage of the 100 percent RA rate they use in stipends?
. Graduate programs, particularly in the sciences, recruit students to UW–Madison with RAships using a percentage of the 100 percent RA rate to meet the national and international stipend level competitive in their field. In many cases, this percentage is 60 percent or more of the 100 percent rate. Many programs also use small percentage RAships to supplement other forms of funding, including other graduate assistantships, fellowships, or traineeships.
How many RAs, TAs and PAs are there at UW–Madison?
See table below.

Number of Graduate Assistants at UW–Madison
Headcount; Based on October, 2008 payroll
Title Headcount
Teach Asst Regular 706
Teach Asst Senior 358
Teach Asst Exp 892
Program Asst-Reg 58
Proj Asst-Dissertator 1
Prj Ast-Grader/Reader 241
Project Asst-Reg 864
Total 3120
Research Assistant 2537
Fellow 478
Scholar 1
Trainee 332
Adv Oppor Fellow 200
Total 1011
What is the distribution of RAs among the schools and colleges?
The majority of RAs are in four schools and colleges: the School of Medicine and Public Health, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, the College of Engineering and the College of Letters & Science.For details, see the following table:

Number of RAs by School/College
Headcount; Based on May, 2009 Payroll
School/College Number
Total 2372
College of Agricultural and Life Sciences 532
School of Education 18
College of Engineering 598
School of Human Ecology 3
Graduate School 80
Nelson Institute 19
Law School 2
Letters & Science 593
School of Medicine & Public Health 413
School of Nursing 7
Psychiatric Institute 10
School of Pharmacy 48
School of Veterinary Medicine 49
How many RAs are currently funded by state dollars?
Only about 5 percent of RAs are funded on state dollars; the rest are supported by gifts and grants. Because most RAs are funded by external dollars, largely from federal agencies, bargaining would need to consider the regulations of those agencies, as well as state regulations. See the table below for details.
How many TAs and PAs are currently funded on state dollars?
In contrast to RAs, about 2,236 TAs and PAs (75 percent) are supported by state funds. See Table.

Head Count of Graduate Assistants by Category, FY 2008–09
Funding Source Teaching Assistant
(Percentage of TAs)
Project & Program Assistant
(Percentage of PAs)
Research Assistant
(Percentage of RAs)
State and Internal Funding 1,888 (96.7%) 348(39.3%) 409 (16.5%)
External Grant and Gift Funding 65 (3.3%) 538 (60.7%) 2,076 (83.5%)
What impact would representation have on federal grants?
We do not know the answer to this.
What impact would representation have on the portion of external grants that PIs use to support graduate students?
We do not know the answer to this.
How would representation alter the movement of students among RAships, traineeships and fellowships during their graduate career?
We do not know the answer to this.
How would the tax status of RAs change under representation?
There would be no change.
Would RA eligibility for Worker’s Compensation change under representation?
No. RAs are currently eligible for Workman’s Compensation and would remain eligible.
How would the payment of fringe benefits on RA stipends change under representation?
We do not know the answer to this.
Who would determine issues such as vacation, sick leave and overtime?
These issues would all need to be negotiated in each contract. The Graduate School, graduate programs and individual PIs would not be able to establish their own guidelines.
Would representation affect the rights of students to their intellectual property?
We do not know for sure, but we suspect that those rights would remain the same as they are now.
How many RAs are funded for nine months? Twelve months?
Approximately 87 percent of RAs are on 12-month appointments. The other 13 percent are on nine-month appointments. Many of the nine-month RAs also have summer appointments in addition to their academic appointment.
What is the difference between a 12-month appointment and a nine-month appointment for an RA? How does a summer appointment work? Is the take-home pay during a year different for a 12-month appointment and a nine-month appointment with a summer appointment? (Assuming the same appointment percentage — say 50 percent — was used for the entire year). Why would an RA be on one or the other?
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 one-ninth 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 2009-10 50 percent rate for an annual RA is $20,184. The 2009-10 academic year’s 50 percent rate for an academic RA is $16,506.
What role does NIH/NSF/etc. currently play in setting the RA rate?
Based on NIH guidelines, the Graduate School has approved a policy that the total cost for an 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).
Beyond wages and benefits — such as health insurance, child care, sick leave, vacation leave, catastrophic leave — on what do unions and employers bargain?
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.
Why are international students on F-1 and J-1 visas not eligible to be part of a bargaining unit?
F1 and J1 visa students are excluded from the bargaining unit under the language inserted into the statutes. 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.
Are international-student TAs and PAs currently represented by the TAA?
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. 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. 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 percent dues that all members of the bargaining unit contribute.
If domestic-student RAs are unionized, how will stipends and other work conditions be set for international RAs who are not represented?
The stipend amounts for RAs not covered by collective bargaining (will be referred to as “nonrepresented RAs”) will continue to be set by the Graduate School’s Academic Planning Council based on the need to be competitive with other universities. However, historically, OSER’s practice with union-represented and nonrepresented state employees has been to hold down the nonrepresented employees’ raises until after collective bargaining with the union-represented employees has been completed. Therefore, we expect that OSER will urge the university to do the same with international RAs.
Do RAs at any other institutions have union representation?
As far as we have determined, the following universities have RA representation: University of Oregon; University of Florida: Temple University; University of Massachusetts–Amherst; University of Massachusetts–Lowell, Boston; University of Iowa; University of Rhode Island; State University of New York; University of Washington. Some of our peer institutions collectively bargain with their TAs, but at this point only one bargains with their RAs. See table.

Collective Bargaining for Graduate Assistants at UW–Madison Peer Institutions
University Teaching Assistants Research Assistants
Illinois Yes No
Indiana No No
Michigan Yes No
Michigan State Yes No
Minnesota No No
Ohio State No No
Purdue No No
Texas No No
UC Berkeley Yes No
UCLA Yes No
Univ. of Washington Yes Yes

Source: Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU) “Recognized Graduate Employee Unions in the U.S.A”, June 2008.