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Stony Brook research assistants vote to unionize

Stony Brook research assistants vote to unionize Andrew StricklkerNewsday

Research assistants at Stony Brook University have voted to unionize after a nine-month campaign that organizers called the largest union drive on Long Island in recent memory.

In a vote of 214-135 tallied Friday evening, the research assistants - all doctoral students - decided to join Local 1104 of the Communications Workers of America. There are about 745 research assistants at Stony Brook, organizers said.

The union already represents the university's teaching and graduate assistants.

Organizers of the effort said they hope the union will help them negotiate waivers of transportation and technology fees that total about $500 each semester, fees that are waived partially or in full for graduate and teaching assistants.

"It doesn't sound like a big deal, but for a lot of RAs making $20,000 a year, $1,000 is a lot," said Matt Engle, 26, a biology research assistant and a student organizer. Engle said he and other assistants also hope to gain improved health benefits and to negotiate a pay increase.

"Basically, there has never been a negotiated raise for RAs ever," he said.

Calls to the SUNY Research Foundation, which employs the RAs, were not returned yesterday. The foundation has argued that a union would create hiring delays and could discourage sponsors of research projects.

Mark Sokolowski, 33, a research assistant in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said many international students who are RAs supported the effort in the hope that a union would help protect their rights to be away from work between semesters, when many visit distant family.

Sokolowski, who worked to gather union support, said he believes much of the resistance from "no" voters was based on the belief that the union would push for a single wage for assistants, potentially driving down salaries for higher-paid positions.

"We would like to see that people get paid a minimum ... but I would encourage any RA to vote no on a contract that doesn't see their position improve," he said.