On Monday, the United Graduate Workers of UNM held a digital rally to kick off “Rally for Recognition: A Week of Union Action” to pressure the University of New Mexico to recognize graduate students’ rights to unionize.

The union aims “to resolve long-standing issues over compensation, benefits and job security and to improve education and research conditions.”

The organization is currently in hearings with the New Mexico Public Employees Labor Relations Board to win recognition as a union. According to the union website, UNM administration argues that grad students cannot be considered employees and thus are not protected under the Public Employee Bargaining Act. 

UNM political science graduate student Samantha Cooney said because the union has over 1,000 members, the University is just stalling and wasting tuition dollars. She encouraged rally attendees to email UNM administration “to stop this senseless legal battle that we know our union will win anyway.”

Joe Ukockis, a history student pursuing his doctorate degree, talked about the recent survey report the union released that describes grad student working conditions and potential solutions. Ukockis touched on a variety of issues, including unlivable wages, inadequate healthcare packages, unpaid hours and fear to address harassment and discrimination. Ukockis said these lack of benefits “exacerbate institutional inequality.” 

The MIT Living Wage Project calculates that $23,213 is the necessary amount for a single adult without dependents to balance the yearly cost of “bare necessities,” according to the report. The minimum stipend for graduate workers is only $14,225 per year.

Guest speakers at the rally included: Melanie Stansbury, the New Mexico state representative for the 28th district, Mina Sardashti, member of UNM Committee for Interns and Residents (CIR), Jessamyn Lovell, UNM senior lecturer, Sofia Jenkins-Nieto, member of UNM Leaders for Environmental Action and Foresight (LEAF), and Andrea Haverkamp, president of the Coalition of Graduate Employees at Oregon State University. A letter was also read by Cooney from the National Union of Hospital and Healthcare Employees District 1199NM. These organizations pledged solidarity to the unionization efforts.

UNM’s recent tuition increase was brought up by Jenkins-Nieto, who questioned why UNM needs more tuition money when she feels the administration continues to waste money and resources on this unionization battle.

“Not only are (grad students) people who deserve a living wage and to be able to live happy fulfilling lives as students and workers, but if they’re working and living in horrible conditions, then that means undergrad education suffers as well,” Jenkins-Nieto said. “We pay the same tuition no matter if it’s a grad worker or a tenured professor teaching our classes.”

An attendee brought up the possibility for a strike near the end of the rally during the Q&A session. Graduate student Kelsey Treviño said a strike is last resort and would be well-planned, emphasizing that grad workers wouldn’t just stop teaching.

The rally also brought up the lack of administrative support for the union, and the letter from District 1199NM specifically questioned UNM Provost James Holloway for telling the Albuquerque Journal that the “university recognizes the rights of our graduate students to decide to organize,” and changing course once the unionization efforts actually began.

Haverkamp said the student union at Oregon State University suffered similar battles when unionizing because the administration was only “trying to focus on big profits and what they are interested in.” She said this goes against inclusion and diversity and the needs of workers and families.

Lovell, a member of the United Academics for UNM, praised the grad workers for going through an intensive process and said working with unions is the only way the administration is going to benefit overall.

“We’re the educators. We’re the knowledgeable ones,” Lovell said. “And they might want to take a note from us.”

Sardashti drew parallels between residents and grad students, reiterating that their labor is a significant factor in bringing in money for the University.

“The only difference is that UNM recognizes us as residents and employees for years while graduate workers continue to be treated as students and not the laborers they so clearly are,” Sardashti said.

Stansbury reflected on her own time at graduate school and reiterated that grad students make universities functional, expressing how wrong it is that these educators have some of the lowest salaries in the state.

“You all are teaching the next generation of students,” Stansbury said.

Lovell said there is no question that the grad union will win, and that now is the time to start organizing what the union will look like when it’s finalized.

“Right here, right now, we're making history,” Lovell said. “You are making history.”

Megan Gleason is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @fabflutist2716