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UNM graduate students and supporters protest outside the UNM Bookstore in August 2022. 

Grad union reaches their first contract with UNM

The United Graduate Workers of the University of New Mexico’s first collective bargaining agreement with UNM was ratified by the Union on Dec. 16, 2022 and signed by Provost James Holloway on Dec. 22, 2022. This concludes bargaining that has been ongoing since early May, though not all are satisfied by the final agreement.

The Union has been advocating for better working conditions for graduate workers at the University since 2020. After fighting for recognition as public employees from the Public Employees Labor Relation Board and having encountered numerous road blocks from the University, they were granted recognition and the right to unionize on Aug. 17, 2021. The Union aimed to solidify the causes they had been fighting for since 2020 through the contract, including better pay and working conditions, but in compromise with the University, they fell short of some goals.

Increased pay and a nondiscrimination clause — making race, gender and sexual orientation a grievable offense via the contract — were proposed by the Union, but neither came to fruition to the extent members wanted, according to Anupam Mitra, an outgoing bargaining committee member.

“(Union members) were not happy with the University's handling of issues of discrimination and workplace grievances … We believe that the University may not necessarily have the workers’ or members’ interest in mind and might have the University's interests in mind and, therefore, we think that the Union is in a better place to advocate for our workers,” Mitra said.

The grievance process in a union contract is meant to be a venue for employees to ensure the contract is being honored and respected by their employer, according to the Collective Bargaining Agreement: Grievance Procedure Clause by Practical Law Labor & Employment. A nondiscrimination clause would have added discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation to the categories that a union grievance could be filed for, according to Julie Hayes, an outgoing committee bargaining member.

The contract instead continues the prior method of hearing discrimination cases via the University’s Office of Compliance, Ethics & Equal Opportunity, and for complaints to be filed in the Office of Academic Personnel — a system many union members aren't happy with, according to Mitra.

However, the contract ensures that union members have the right to have a union steward present at any investigatory meetings, according to the contract.

Additionally, while the contract will give all graduate workers, including research assistants, a raise (7.12% to all who were making above the minimum pay and a 10% raise to the minimum pay itself), this still does not meet the rising cost of living in New Mexico, according to Mitra. The cost of living in Albuquerque for a single adult with no children is roughly $26,455 — about $3,000 higher than it was in 2020, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator.

However, the contract section regarding compensation and raises can be reopened and renegotiated once every year, starting next fall. All other parts of the contract will be up for renegotiation in fall 2024.

“We're disappointed because a lot of things that we wanted, we did not get. In particular, a lot of our members are hurting: they make significantly lower than the living wage in Albuquerque and a raise (of) 7% for them will be quite small,” Mitra said.

Aside from pay, the only other clause that could change prior to 2024 is health insurance. As the contract stands, graduate workers’ health coverage is not changing from 100% of premiums being covered by the University. However, per a letter filed to the Attorney General, if graduate workers are to be counted as employees instead of students in regards to health insurance, the University would legally only be able to cover 80%, according to Hayes.

Dental and vision coverage was not secured in this contract, with the University only directly outlining in the contract for grad workers to “seek low-cost services that may be offered through the UNM Dental Clinic and UNM Dental Hygiene Services.” Sasha Arteaga, an outgoing bargaining member, feels the low-cost options available aren't sufficient. 

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“The benefits say that there is a dental plan available and students are encouraged to go to Novitski Hall. And that seems kind of like a slap in the face and honestly, it is kind of a slap in the face, ”Arteaga said. “We provided some very equitable solutions for this,” 

The University rejected the Union’s proposals on solutions for this issue, including adding grad workers to the UNM Hospitals resident’s plan or the UNM employee plan, according to Arteaga.

Not expecting to see changes before she graduated, Arteaga credits the speed of completion of the first contract — completed in just under 300 days compared to an average of 400, according to Bloomberg Law — to the organizing skills of the Union, their coordination with others and ability to mobilize their people, as well as research done by the bargaining team.

Grad workers will also now be provided sick leave and the contract will allow for two weeks of paid medical leave, along with newly gaining three days of bereavement leave.

While not directly in the contract itself, the bargaining sessions also resulted in the University allowing the reimbursement of the $350 Student Exchange Visitor Information System fee that all international graduate students must pay. This will also apply to graduate students who are not employees.

“The reason we consider this a big win is for international students coming to the University to study, there are a lot of expenses involved ranging from two sets of visa fees, one of which is this one service … (along with) application fees, the cost of flying internationally, the fact that oftentimes the cost of living in other countries is different from the US. So this is a huge expense and getting this reimbursement is a big win for our international students,” Mitra said.

Cinnamon Blair, UNM spokesperson, wrote in a comment to the Daily Lobo that the University is “very pleased” to have finished negotiations.

“Graduate student education is critically important at UNM, and graduate assistantships are one important means by which we can support these students financially.  We are very pleased that we were able to successfully negotiate a first contract with UGW-UE and that it has been ratified. We look forward to working collaboratively with the union as the contract is implemented,” Blair wrote. 

Moving forward, the Union plans to advocate for the ability to strike, which is currently illegal for public employees in the state of New Mexico. This is a tool that Mitra, Arteaga and Hayes believe would have brought them more power when bargaining.

“We obviously hope for getting a lot more in the future to improve the lives and circumstances of our members. And because of that, I don't think this is finished. And what we do have in mind is to build on this contract,” Mitra said. ”And we feel that, because we are legally prohibited from striking, there's a lot that kind of prevents us from getting some of our demands.”

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

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