Digging In

University of New Mexico continues court fight in opposition to grad students’ unionization efforts

Stress is mounting for University of New Mexico students and workers, even with a much-needed holiday respite just a day away.

“We’re working so hard to make sure the undergraduates that we work with and work for are having a successful end of the year,” Hally Bert, a graduate student and employee at UNM’s Community and Regional Planning Department, tells SFR.

But for Bert and her graduate peers, the approaching end of the semester comes with a bitter aftertaste in the form of “state-funded union busting.”

She’s an elected member of the United Graduate Workers of UNM’s bargaining team, and Bert contends that the university continues to stall unionization momentum despite numerous signals from the state’s labor board affirming her team’s efforts.

“They’re just trying to drag this out and really add insult to injury after a really difficult year,” Bert says.

In mid-August, UNM graduate workers won the right to be recognized as regular employees by the Public Employee Labor Relations Board, which paved the way for unionization efforts to move forward. Graduate workers of UNM started gauging interest from student employees in the fall of 2020, with over 1,000 signing union cards.

The union—now members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America union—has raised concerns about taxpayer money the university has spent on contract counsel to fight their efforts in court. According to court filings in the case, Dina Holcomb of the Holcomb Law Office in Albuquerque, represents UNM.

According to UNM’s transparency portal, Holcomb’s law firm has been paid a little more than $77,000 in two installments in August for “legal expertise services.” Cinnamon Blair, a spokeswoman for UNM, couldn’t say whether those payments were for Holcomb’s work on the graduate workers issue.

Three months have passed since the labor board’s ruling, but the graduate workers say they aren’t any closer to better working conditions. UNM has taken several steps to avoid coming to the table and bargaining with its student employees.

After the August decision, the labor board again signaled support for the group’s unionization efforts—by indicating graduate workers represent an appropriate bargaining unit.

“I conclude that the petitioned-for job titles form an appropriate bargaining unit and that [United Graduate Workers] is a labor organization able to petition for recognition as an exclusive representative under the [Public Employee Bargaining Act],” wrote Thomas Greigo, the labor board’s hearing officer, in an Oct. 4 decision.

The university disagrees with Greigo.

UNM “believes the [labor board] has been incorrect and overbroad in its rulings, and this case will set a precedent for all research universities in New Mexico,” Blair writes to SFR.

Blair adds that Greigo also ruled against graduate workers’ eligibility to bargain collectively as a union—a statement that aligns with the hearing officer’s June 11 report, but no longer stands up to the labor board’s more recent rulings.

While the university’s legal tactics slow the process, the labor board gave the signal in October to begin the final step in the unionization process: counting the cards of members who support forming a union. If over 50% of graduate employees signal their support for a union, the university will be forced to come to the bargaining table with United Graduate Workers.

The university filed a notice of appeal on Nov. 19th and, three days later, filed a motion for stay to prevent the card count from moving forward.

“We believe that the issues raised in our appeal should be settled before there is a card count,” Blair writes. She adds that conducting a card count for a group of employees lacks predetermined rules, maintaining that the labor board should create such rules before there’s a count.

Blair continues, saying that some students who signed cards in the fall of 2020 may no longer be graduate students and “it is not clear who can participate in a card check.”

On Monday, the graduate workers union filed a motion to dismiss the university’s appeal. Providing counsel to the graduate employees, Stephen Curtice, of the Youtz Valdez law firm, writes that UNM seeks to delay “the wishes of a majority of its employees” in filing the appeal ahead of the labor board’s certification of the union’s majority status.

Anna Rose, a field organizer for UE, tells SFR that the union plans to file a response to the UNM’s motion for stay, halting the card count. With the motion to dismiss the university’s appeal submitted, Rose says they will be addressing the newest legal effort of UNM.

As for the university’s pushback, Bert says it has strengthened members’ resolve and encouraged more graduate workers to share their stories about the difficulties of working for UNM.

“We are a union, we’re operating as a union, whether we’re formally recognized by the university or not,” Bert tells SFR. “We’ll continue to organize and push back against these things as they come up.”

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