Are Graduate Students Considered Workers? University Says ‘No’.

Ramona Malczynski speaks to protestors at the grad workers rally for union rights. Call and response chants included: “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” and “Who are we? Employees!” Photo by Gordon Payne / NM News Port.

By Gordon Payne / NM News Port

Graduate students employed at the University of New Mexico protested outside of the university president’s house on January 27 as part of an ongoing disagreement between the school and the students over their right to unionize.

Graduate workers at UNM officially filed for union recognition with the state  Public Employees Labor Relations Board (PELRB) in December after announcing their intent to form UNM Grad Workers United. More than 1,000 of the graduate students working at UNM decided to sign union cards which would allow them more bargaining power with the university. While UNM graduate workers have been trying to unionize for quite some time, the added stress of the Covid-19 pandemic gave them the necessary momentum to begin bargaining for a living wage.

“The university recognizes the rights of our graduate students to decide to organize, and no matter what decision they reach, I welcome open and honest discussions,” UNM Provost, James Holloway, said in an initial statement upon the announcement by UNM Grad Workers United of their intent to unionize. 

However, when the PELRB found the graduate workers petition to be valid, the university responded by issuing their own petition which denies that Grad Workers are employees under a controversial Trump-administration labor regulation and argues the would-be union does not have enough shared interests to function as a cohesive bargaining unit.

“After we filed for unionization, UNM has done the opposite of respecting that right and has been more hostile than anything else,” said Ramona Malczynski, a spokesperson for UNM Grad Workers United and graduate teaching assistant in the Geography department. “They’re paying lawyers thousands of dollars to make sure we don’t unionize. This is probably because then they’ll have to pay us more. Currently, we get paid below the cost of living in Albuquerque.”

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The grad worker’s rally for union rights took place outside of UNM President Garnett S Stokes’ personal residence on campus with some protestors in cars and others gathered on her front lawn. Photo by Gordon Payne, NM News Port.

Post-master teacher assistants make an estimated  $15,465 for 20-hour weeks for 10 months of the year and they don’t have to pay tuition, which makes total compensation the equivalent of $30,000 per year. 

“The primary purpose of this payment is to provide financial support to allow graduate students to continue their studies,” said Cinnamon Blair, Chief Communications Officer for UNM. “Their primary role is as a student, and we do not believe that the remuneration they receive moves them into the status of ‘regular employee’ as defined in the laws of the State of New Mexico.”

A graduate workers union is not without precedent. Harvard, Columbia, and Brown all have accredited unions for their graduate students. Union organizing drives are underway or union groups are awaiting recognition by or in negotiations with their universities on two dozen campuses across the country, according to the Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions (CGEU)

Blair did go on to admit that, “The issue of whether graduate students are ‘regular employees,’ and thereby eligible to unionize and bargain collectively under New Mexico law, is an undecided legal question.” 

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Caravan outside of President Stokes’ residence, horns blaring, lasted for nearly an hour. Photo by Gordon Payne, NM News Port.

Many states explicitly give collective bargaining rights to academic student employees in their labor laws; however, some states like New Mexico give public university employees the right to collectively bargain but leaves eligibility for graduate employees unstated. In this case, it is up to the PELRB to decide whether the union is valid or not. 

While the PELRB was unable to comment on this, an ongoing case, The New Mexico Public Employee Bargaining Act (PEBA) in which the Executive Director, Tom Griego, said the following:

“You have my pledge as the Board’s Executive Director that I will do my best to guarantee public employees the right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers; promote harmonious and cooperative relationships between public employers and employees; and protect the public interest by assuring the orderly operation and functioning of the state and its political subdivisions as required by the PEBA.”

It was the PEBA that gave faculty at UNM the ability to form their own union last year, after voting overwhelmingly to form two unions, one for regular faculty and another for adjunct faculty members.

“The university treats us like employees, we get emails and health surveys specifically for university employees, we have to do employee training every year and we receive W-2 tax forms from the school which is something only employees fill out,” Malczynski said. “Those are basic arguments, but the other thing is none of us teach or grade papers purely because it’s part of our education, a lot of the time you have to do that work even though it may not have anything to do with your field of research. ”

There are 3,750 students in graduate programs at UNM last fall, plus an additional 669 graduate students in the Anderson School of Management, according to a 2020 enrollment report. 

“We have scheduled about 5,500 classes this term, in Albuquerque, and we currently have 508 graduate students with Teaching Assistantships,” Blair explained.  “Some of these TAs are the Instructor of Record while many are working with a professor who is the Instructor of Record.”

Assistantships can include a variety of responsibilities, however, and oftentimes graduate students are left feeling undervalued for their work.

“We teach undergraduate classes, manage labs and studios, conduct research, grade papers, organize conferences, and provide administrative support,” Lindsay Morrone said. Morrone is a TA and Ph.D. student who attended  the UNM GradWorkers Protest.“This is all work that UNM employs us, and underpays us, to do.”

Grad workers chose to be represented by the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), a national union representing some 35,000 workers in a wide variety of manufacturing, public sector, and private service-sector jobs. 

“The university consistently addresses us as employees in our internal communications,” Morrone said. “So it comes as a surprise that the administration would align themselves with the Trump administration in attempting to deny graduate workers our human right to have a voice on the job through forming a union.”

Protestors adorned their vehicles with pro-union signs and slogans. Photo by Gordon Payne / NM News Port

Grad students hope that once the PELRB has a chance to decide on the details of their case UNM admins will be more open to meaningful discussions.

“Part of our action on Wednesday was to show that we are united and that we are ready to sit down and negotiate with the school,” Malczynski said, “but I think it’s pretty clear they aren’t ready to sit down and talk with us.”

Gordon Payne is a reporter for New Mexico News Port and can be reached at nmnewsport@gmail.com