University of New Mexico graduate student workers reported on Friday that more than 40% of eligible graduate workers have signed union cards. The union needs 50% plus one in order to appeal to the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) to form a union.
“More cards have been coming in ... We have broken 700 cards, and there are 1,600 graduate students. And so, a simple majority is 800,” Emigdio Turner, a chemistry Ph.D. candidate at UNM and union organizing committee member, said during a Zoom breakout session with STEM graduate students on Friday. “(But), we would be looking to go much further past that to demonstrate unilateral support.”
More than 50 graduate teaching and research assistants from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields including engineering, physics, chemistry and biology convened for a virtual meeting to answer questions and encourage student workers to sign union cards.
The union’s organizing committee members showed a prepared slide presentation and had guest speakers provide testimony as to why they signed their union card.
Graduate and Professional Student Association (GPSA) President and electrical engineering and business administration student Nikhil Reddy acknowledged the limitations of the existing system for graduate worker representation and advocated for a union as a more effective way to negotiate for graduate worker pay and benefits.
Reddy said that GPSA presidents have worked on these issues in the past, but the University hasn’t taken those appeals seriously.
“If anyone from GPSA takes these issues (to the administration) the response is, ‘Yes we recognize it but, you know, the state government, the legislature, the economy ... There are too many (reasons) for the University to not look into this matter,’” Reddy said.
Optical science and engineering Ph.D. candidate and union organizing committee member Duncan McGraw made the argument that the union’s ability to negotiate with the administration will be more effective because unions have legally protected rights to negotiate on their members’ behalf.
“By law, once we form a union, UNM has to negotiate with us — over our pay, working conditions and benefits — in good faith,” McGraw said.
In response to concerns about UNM not having enough money to compensate graduate workers better, Axel Gonzalez, a Ph.D. candidate in American studies, said that the existing system of representation provides little to no voice to graduate students in budgetary decision making.
“The reality is that UNM has a large budget, and of course they have to make decisions about where that money goes,” Gonzalez said. “But, the big issue is that right now (graduate workers) have no say in that budget.”
Later, Gonzalez added that, “The University claims to not have enough money to pay those that make the least.”
A portion of the presentation was focused on addressing the concerns that some international graduate students may be at increased risk for retaliation if they sign a card or participate in the union.
In an email sent to Rahul Jaiswal, an engineering Ph.D. candidate and union organizing committee member, director of International Student and Scholar Services Linda Melville confirmed that international students should not fear losing their visas for participating in or supporting union activities.
“As international students, as long as you maintain full time enrollment and keep your I-20/DS 2019 current (as well as your passport), you are free to participate or not participate in union activity as you see fit,” Melville wrote.
STEM graduate students shared that their primary grievances are over workload and how the power dynamic between graduate students and faculty supervisors can inhibit the ability of an individual graduate worker to advocate on their own behalf.
Katherine Cosburn, physics and astronomy teaching assistant said that in her situation she was assigned the workload of two TAs but was compensated for just one assignment.
“I had an experience a year ago where they were paying me a regular TA stipend, and I was supposed to TA two classes that normally have two separate TAs for those classes,” Cosburn said. “I went to my advisor at one point to complain, and she talked to the chair, but there was nothing to be done.”
Gonzalez asserted that not only would the union be better positioned to bring these grievances to the attention of the administration, but that there was no evidence that participating in a union would erode relationships between faculty advisors and graduate students.
“We will be negotiating with the University — the University administration — not our faculty or advisors,” Gonzalez said. “And this idea that a union can negatively impact that relationship with them is just not true.”
Gonzalez said that several studies have shown that graduate employee bargaining has not affected the relationships between graduate workers and their faculty and advisors.
“In fact, we argue the opposite — having adequate pay, protections and a say in the decisions that affect our lives only improves our professional relationships and our overall well being,” Gonzalez added.
With regard to specific improvements in demands for better health care benefits, the union organizing committee displayed a number of slides that compared premium costs, out of pocket maximums and co-pay amounts for graduate workers at unionized campuses with UNM’s current graduate worker health care package.
Alexis Keissling, a former union organizing member and alumna from the University of Oregon, testified that other graduate student unions had negotiated access to better physical and mental health benefits.
Alexis said that being a member of a graduate worker union at her University ensured that the health care benefits available to graduate workers included the costs she incurred while undergoing medical treatment to transition.
“There are various transition-related things that insurance policies frequently don't cover,” Alexis wrote in a message with the Daily Lobo.
“Physical health care is mostly in the form of hormone replacement therapy and monitoring that with blood work. Additionally, for a lot of trans people, therapy is not only helpful for working through gender dysphoria or other feelings but actually a necessary step to obtain HRT or other medical gender transition services,” Alexis said.
The Daily Lobo reached out to the administration for comment regarding the progress the union effort has made, but they were not able to provide comment before this article went to print.
After the union collects the appropriate number of signed cards, the next step is to appeal to the Labor Board for recognition.
The Daily Lobo previously reported that the Labor Board would not confirm nor deny if graduate workers are recognized as public employees. PELRB executive director Thomas Griego said, “This is an open question that has not yet been addressed by this board. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on an issue that may come before us for adjudication.”
Lissa Knudsen is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lissaknudsen