“Hungry minds, not hungry students” read one sign at Wednesday’s protest organized by the University of New Mexico’s graduate student union decrying the University’s recent attempts to block graduate student workers from unionizing.
The protest started with a rally outside of the University House, with students socially distanced, as well as a parade of cars with signs taped to the side that drove around the area.
Students’ chants echoed across the campus, saying things like “Trump and Stokes may not agree, but who are we? Employees” and “We. Are. UE.”
The pedestrian rally began with a short speech from Len Beké, a Spanish and Portuguese teaching assistant.
“Yesterday, I was up until 11 (p.m.) recording lectures for my classes. Is that labor?” Beké said. The crowd chanted “Yes!” in response. “The week before, I was creating forums on the Learn page for class. Is that labor?” Beké then asked. The crowd again chanted “Yes!”
Beké’s speech was followed by another from geography teaching assistant Ramona Malczynski, who spoke more on the struggles graduate student employees face.
“Graduate students have to commit to poverty wages during their studies and hope that their hard work pays off when they enter the job market,” Malczynski said.
The protest came after UNM filed a petition to block graduate students from being able to unionize, citing a law passed under the Trump administration that employees must be employed for an indefinite period of time to have the ability to organize.
“Given the defined short period of assistantship status, graduate students are not regular employees under the definition of the PEBA (Public Employee Bargaining Act) and, therefore, are not eligible to organize,” UNM’s petition reads.
PEBA also requires that, for a union to exist, the members of the union should be in certain occupational groups or share a “community of interest.” UNM argued that research assistants and teaching assistants do not share job responsibilities and thus should not be in the same bargaining unit.
Lindsay Morrone, a linguistics teaching assistant and an organizer of Graduate Workers United, said she believed the amount of work that graduate students do should be enough for them to count as employees.
“We are graduate students, but we are also employees,” Morrone said. “We’re teaching undergraduate classes, managing labs, studios, conducting research, grading papers, organizing conferences. That stuff is labor.”
When asked about what sort of road blocks the union might face if they are recognized, Morrone said, “They are required by law to bargain with us, so we are hoping that they will follow the law and bargain with us.”
The more than 1,000 graduate workers who signed on to unionize make up a supermajority of the 1,600 fall 2020 graduate student employees. The Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PERLB) said that the request was “facially valid” and “supported by a sufficient showing of interest.”
“We have over 1,000 graduate workers signed. That’s a big deal,” Samantha Cooney, a graduate assistant in political science, said. “UNM seems to think that they can decide whether or not we unionize, but we have already decided.”
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As the demonstration came to a close, American studies teaching and graduate assistant Axel Gonzalez made a final speech before the cars drove around one more time.
Morrone hopes that the protest will help them finally achieve their union status and the University listens to what their students have to say before a potential work stoppage.
“If the University doesn’t stop stalling and allow us our right to unionize, then we will be forced to strike,” Morrone said. “We really hope it doesn’t come to that.”
John Scott is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JScott050901