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UCI School of Medicine researcher faces termination, UAW confronts administration

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Photos by Beatrice Lee / Staff

Members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) continued negotiations with the UCI School of Medicine administration regarding their intent to dismiss researcher Dr. Subburathinam “Subbu” Balakrishnan, who spoke out about alleged physical abuse, verbal harassment and safety violations committed by his faculty supervisor and research principal investigator (PI). 

As of May 16, university administration sought options for Balakrishnan’s reappointment or opportunities for other work within the School of Medicine, while UAW representatives pursue a potential informal settlement with UCI Academic Labor Relations. 

Further talks followed a rally organized by UAW locals 4811, 5810 and 2685 on May 7 at the UCI School of Medicine campus, as members and Balakrishnan demanded a fair investigation of abuse allegations and an end to unsafe work environments.

“My PI has repeatedly abused and bullied me, regularly forced me to work 11 and 12-hour days, and asked inappropriate questions about my religion,” Balakrishnan, a postdoctoral fellow at the UCI School of Medicine, said in a UAW press release on May 5. “And when I spoke up against this abuse, he physically barred me in his office and shoved me when I attempted to leave [on March 26]. Now, UCI is attempting to fire me.”

As explained in an interview with UAW representatives, Balakrishnan began his research appointment with his faculty supervisor in October 2023. According to union representatives and a petition outlining demands, Balakrishnan repeatedly experienced and reported concerns and workplace safety violations regarding his supervisor during the spring of 2024 and formally through a grievance process, meeting with the UCI School of Medicine administration for a grievance meeting on April 30. Balakrishnan received a letter of intent to dismiss from the university on May 3. The letter informed Balakrishnan that his research appointment at UCI School of Medicine is set for termination on May 22 — an outcome that may put Balakrishnan at risk of deportation if he, as an international worker, does not secure other employment.

Over 30 individuals joined the May 7 rally at the UCI School of Medicine campus, holding signs and repeating chants calling upon the power of collective organization and protections for international workers. In an interview with New University, Mia Villegas, a UAW 4811 executive board member and rally organizer, emphasized the group’s demands.

“We want everyone to see and hear about Subbu,” Villegas said. “We want the dean to meet with us, and we want him to agree to our demands today. We want to see meaningful progress related to Dr. Balakrishan to continue his appointment here and get a fair resolution to this traumatic ordeal [sic].”

According to Villegas, Balakrishnan regularly worked 10- to 12-hour days and repeatedly communicated “feeling overworked and very exhausted” to his supervisor. Balakrishnan, who worked with animal subjects, also reportedly sustained a bite injury after his supervisor told him to only use one pair of gloves to not “waste gloves,” violating safety precautions for animal research and the common lab practice of utilizing at least two pairs of gloves. His supervisor allegedly did not allow Balakrishnan to seek medical attention until a day after the bite.

According to the Instagram post from UAW Local 4811, unsafe conditions reached a head on March 26 when Balakrishnan’s supervisor assigned him more work duties, although he already worked 10 hours that day. Balakrishnan offered to finish the assignment the next day and insisted on leaving, to which the supervisor allegedly blocked the door to his office — barring Balakrishnan from exiting — and physically shoved Balakrishnan then proceeded to call the police. 

“Immediately [my PI] call[ed] the police, and the police came to my room,” Balakrishnan said in the UAW post. The post further states that after this police encounter, the university revoked his school ID and called police on Balakrishnan a second time when he arrived on campus to return his ID. Administration then placed Balakrishnan on investigatory leave, prohibiting him from continuing research.

Villegas further explained the decision to confront campus leadership directly through a rally.

“We did what we could through the formal channels, like filing grievances and formally submitting workplace complaints,” Villegas said. “Even then, the university’s intransigence has forced us to the point where we need to meet with the dean formally to reach a resolution that hundreds of people are waiting to see.”

During the May 7 rally, union members spotted Dr. Francesco Tombola, Associate Dean for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at the UCI School of Medicine, meeting with students outside of Sprague Hall. Rally members surrounded Tombola and followed him into the David G. Sills Conference Room, holding signs and calling for accountability.

“We hear you; you’re not here at the right time nor the right place,” an individual standing next to Tombola stated to the rally.

Union members regrouped at Joan Irvine Smith Hall, filling the lobby and sitting outside Tombola’s office to demand a meeting. Six UCIPD officers arrived at the scene after a front desk employee cited harassment. Despite this, union members continued to call for a direct meeting with the associate dean, while a dean’s office employee insisted that all meetings with the dean were to be scheduled through formal processes. 

Outside of the hall, Marianne Liu Beckett, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Academic Personnel, and Dr. Geoffrey Abbott, Senior Associate Dean of Academic Personnel, spoke with rally organizers. 

Following the confrontation, Balakrishnan thanked rally participants for their support. Tombola ultimately agreed to meet with union representatives that day regarding Balakrishnan’s allegations and impending termination. Villegas told New University that Tombola expressed he was not aware of abuse or harassment allegations and that the meeting was “productive.” 

When contacted for comment regarding Balakrishnan’s allegations and the UAW rally on May 7, a UCI Communications & Media Relations representative informed New University that university leadership were unable to comment due to employee confidentiality.

In light of the university’s response to Balakrishnan’s allegations, Villegas emphasized the importance of advocating for victims and demanding transparency and accountability, referencing the Respectful Work Environment article that guarantees safe and abuse-free environments.

“I think that the university is choosing to protect abusers and the powerful here instead of standing with their employees,” Villegas said. “It’s really upsetting to me that they permit physical violence in labs and try to sweep it under the rug.”

Unsafe working conditions, overworking and harassment in labs and higher education are neither isolated nor uncommon events, according to Villegas; they “happen all the time.” Villegas similarly emphasized protections for international scholars and workers, who are often placed in unsafe working environments. 

“I think the university needs to seriously meet with us as union members and take our concerns seriously,” Villegas said. “UCI needs to be committed to protecting international workers, and that also means addressing a lot of issues that international workers face, such as being overworked and taken advantage of.”

Beatrice Lee is a City News Editor. She can be reached at beatrirl@uci.edu.

Edited by Karen Wang, Jaheem Conley and Lillian Dunn