Learning to Labor

UNM graduate students earn designation as public employees from state labor board, paving the way for unionization

The state Public Employee Labor Relations Board on Tuesday delivered a win for University of New Mexico graduate students, opening the door for them to form a union.

The board recognized the students as regular employees under the state’s Public Employee Bargaining Act—reversing an earlier ruling from its own hearing officer.

The awaited decision came during a brief meeting Tuesday morning, two weeks after the board heard arguments from the university and the students in a regular meeting. Negotiations between United Graduate Workers of UNM and UNM are expected next to establish a collective bargaining agreement.

“We’re excited to negotiate a contract with the UNM administration and basically we urge them to meet us at the bargaining table in good faith in a timely fashion,” says Lindsay Monroe, interim chair of the union’s coordinating committee. “They’ve dragged out this process enough and so we want to get to work as soon as possible. Grad workers can’t go one more year with poverty wages, lack of access to adequate medical care and unsustainable working conditions.”

The labor board ruled that graduate students fall under the definition of public employee, “as opposed to the reasoning and conclusions of law contained in the hearing officer’s recommended decision,” said board chair Marianne Bowers in announcing the board’s decision.

The university fought to keep the students from organizing, arguing that graduate students don’t qualify as workers eligible for collective bargaining because of the conditions of their employment—graduate students work for fixed durations. The university employs graduate students through assistantships, which include teaching responsibilities, research work and grading.

UNM spokeswoman Cinnamon Blair tells SFR the university won’t comment on whether it intends to abide by the board’s decision until officials see a written version of the ruling.

In September 2020, UNM graduate students began collecting signatures and support for the creation of a union made up of graduate workers. After gaining a supermajority of signatures from graduate employees, organizers applied for certification under state law.

With board approval the union can negotiate collective bargaining agreements with UNM’s administration, addressing working conditions, wages and benefits for university employees.

On June 11, Thomas Griego, the Public Employee Labor Relations Board’s hearing officer, ruled in favor of UNM, concluding that graduate workers are not public employees.

The hearing officer sided with UNM’s definition of regular work, which excludes graduate assistantships because they are not guaranteed through a student’s time with the university—notably during summer months when assistantships are rare.

The United Graduate Workers of UNM appealed the hearing officer’s decision on June 25, and in the earlier Aug. 3 meeting, the Public Employee Labor Relations Board heard from the two sides’ legal teams.

Stephen Curtice of the Youtz Valdez law firm, representing the graduate workers, took exception with several facts from the hearing officer’s ruling. Curtice pointed to K-12 teachers—public employees who work on annual contracts—to refute the university’s definition of regular employees.

Curtice argued that “regular” should be contrasted with “casual.” He explained: “Typically that’s understood as someone who’s only called on on occasion to come in when the need arises, as opposed to having a regular schedule with fixed hours.” Curtice added, “Conversely, you can have a regular employment relationship where you have set hours, you have discipline procedures that you’re subject to, you have job expectations and that can be limited in duration.”

The UNM Board of Regents, represented by contract attorney Dina Holcomb, argued in support of the hearing officer’s June ruling. She told the labor board, “The term regular is meant to mean usually, normal or habitual—an ongoing basis, without limits on duration.”

Curtice said, in the event the labor board sided with the university, he feared this would set a dangerous precedent for future labor negotiations.

“If that is all that it takes to avoid the obligations of bargaining with a union, I don’t see any reason why a public employer would not start placing most, if not all, of their employees under fixed-term contracts,” Curtice said on Aug. 3.

The successful unionizing effort comes after United Academics of UNM, representing 1,600 part- and full-time faculty, signed a collective bargaining agreement with the university in late June. Up north, unionization efforts by Santa Fe Community College faculty have long been mired in conflict and drawn-out negotiations.

Jens Van Gysel, a fifth-year doctorate student in linguistics at the University of New Mexico, got involved in labor issues last year after hearing his peers talk about “unsafe work environments; sometimes inadequate benefits, not being able to afford to go to the dentist or the doctor.”

Van Gysel says the money that comes in from his assistantship with the university barely pays the bills.

“Our stipends are about 60% of what is considered a living wage in Albuquerque,” he tells SFR.

A 2020 report on basic needs insecurity from UNM found that 22% of graduate students were food insecure.

Alongside 1,500 of his peers, Van Gysel signed onto unionization efforts. Now, in addition to researching Indigenous languages of South America, Van Gysel also serves as the chief steward of the United Graduate Workers of UNM.

Though graduate students’ fight for collective bargaining agreements began in the 1960s, the movement gained considerable momentum when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that graduate students at private universities were employees in 2016. For graduate employees of public universities, the right to organize depends on which state universities operate in.

In California, public graduate students have fought for collective bargaining agreements, though graduate students in Texas have no ability to negotiate as a union.

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