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Graduate students and community members gather in front of UNM's Dane Smith Hall to advocate for higher wages and better insurance benefits on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

Grad worker’s union pickets for better health insurance, higher wages

On Tuesday, Nov. 15, the United Graduate Workers of the University of New Mexico held a picket starting at the intersection of Las Lomas Road and Yale Boulevard in front of Dane Smith Hall at UNM and then marched to spread petitions across Scholes Hall. The Union called for the University to come to an agreement by their last scheduled bargaining meeting on Dec. 7 so they can finalize a contract.

The Union has been at the bargaining table with the University since early May 2022. After recent bargaining sessions, the Union is working toward better healthcare coverage, raises and coverage of parking costs, among other topics.

“It's important to show that we're doing the best we can. We want this contract (to be) just done by December 7 so that way we can get our raises to the workers by the beginning of next semester,” Sasha Arteaga, a chief steward in the Union, said. “So we're really trying to make some noise and be disruptive to really show them that we've got the support of a good chunk of the grad workers and faculty as well and others in the community and that this isn't going unnoticed.”

The petition, delivered to offices in Scholes Hall including that of President Garnett Stokes, who was out of office in a donor meeting at the time, addressed the changes in health insurance that the University is proposing which would require grad workers to cover at least 20% of their insurance costs. The University cites a law that caps an employer's contributions to health insurance at 80%.

Currently, the coverage provided by the University is limited and excludes vision and dental. This change would increase the costs of having health insurance for the grad workers, and UNM might also ask for repayment for past costs they covered.

“I think that this (picket) is important to do right now because in response to our asking for wages that keep up with the rising cost of living and inflation, the University is trying to force us to pay 20% of our healthcare costs at a time when 65% of grad workers already delay or entirely forego medical treatment due to cost when 15% are in medical debt as a result of having a pay for procedures during their time here,” Elle Herman, a chief steward, said.

Along with insurance, raises are another top priority for the Union. Currently, the University has proposed a 5% wage increase for all workers excluding research assistants due to their funding coming from grants. The Union wants a higher wage increase and an extension to have the increase include resident advisors as well.

“We're trying to set a minimum stipend for everybody and also add raises to that, but they're arguing that because RAs are paid through grants that they can't set a minimum when in fact, many grant organizations like the National Science Foundation (an independent agency from the US Government to fund education and research) will provide cost adjustments,” Arteaga said.

Chief steward Ian Birdwell also believes this would be a feasible extension based on his work with research assistants.

“We understand that many grants are multi-year funding processes. But we also understand that the University does have all of the money taken from overhead and we would hope that they would see this as a good use for it,” Birdwell said.

Over a hundred people were present at the picket, including many community members. Jaden Martin, an undergraduate student, said that he thought it helped bring awareness and was important to their education as well.

“I'll be a graduate student eventually, probably. And, like I said, my Spanish teacher last year, she was actually a grad student, and she was a great teacher, and she deserves a fair payment and fair wages,” Martin said.

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Birdwell and Arteaga refused to comment on whether the Union would strike if an agreement is not reached in December.

“We have to get better numbers on our benefits. There's still a few things that are up in the air, but we have so many tentative agreements that we have a lot of hope. We truly do think that all it takes is just like a unified front and we'll get there,” Birdwell said.

Madeline Pukite is the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @maddogpukite

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