Big win for UNM grad workers in the fight for labor rights

Union organizers: Livable wages could improve diversity of the student body and access to advanced degrees

By: - August 31, 2021 5:45 am

Graduate students are often the only instructor for many courses at the University of New Mexico. Like other teachers in August 2020, grad instructors were forced to spend many hours redesigning their curricula for online-only or hybrid models, like what’s shown here in a UNM classroom. In Fall 2020, about 70 percent of classes were being taught online, according to the university. (Photo by Sam Wasson / Getty Images)

Graduate workers at the University of New Mexico say a ruling earlier this month could help them address low wages, poor benefits, overwork and discrimination at their five campuses in New Mexico — and if conditions improve, there will be fewer systemic barriers to getting an advanced degree. 

New Mexico’s statewide labor board determined that graduate students are considered public employees under state law and have a right to organize. The decision could also help other organizing efforts by public-sector workers in the state.

Ramona Malczynski, a teaching assistant in the university’s Geography Department, was traveling with friends when she heard the news.

“I was jumping up and down, very excited, because we’ve just put so much work into this,” she said. “It was just kind of overwhelming joy. Not just the leadership but every single member in our union has put in a lot of work to make this happen.”

Graduate workers at the university started signing authorization cards formally expressing their desire to form a union affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America in September 2019. 

In 2020, New Mexico became one of the few states in the U.S. to provide public employees the right to form a union through card check. It’s an alternative to a traditional union election in situations where an employer is particularly anti-union, according to proponents.

Barely making it

A lot of graduate students who work for the university have children or families, Malczynski pointed out. Graduate workers at UNM earn an average of $14,438 per year, according to the university. The cost of living for a single adult in Albuquerque is $23,213, according to the MIT Living Wage Project

In 2021, more than one-third of graduate students reported facing housing insecurity, and nearly two-thirds reported delaying or foregoing medical care due to cost. 

The situation can be especially hard for international students with F-1 or J-1 visas, who must obtain permission from an international adviser to work off-campus. “A lot of the time, their spouses aren’t allowed to work based on the type of visa that they have,” Malczynski said. 

And many of the union’s members who are from the U.S. must work second and third jobs, she added, like service industry jobs on the weekend or over the summer break. “I barely make ends meet,” Malczynski said. “Sometimes I do have to ask my family for a few hundred dollars here and there to make sure I pay my rent, and then pay them back later. I know that I have extra support, because my family’s from here, and I can rely on them in some ways.”

Many graduate students have not been able to go to the dentist in years, she said — that’s because graduate workers must pay much more for dental coverage compared with other staff.

“You do make a decision to go to grad school. You’re not only investing five to six years if you’re in a Ph.D program, but also you’re basically delaying having a normal wage for those five to six years and not being able to save up for retirement or health care, or whatever kind of costs that you need,” she says. “So if you’re a person of color, LGBTQ, any other kind of oppressed minority — or if your family just doesn’t have wealth — it’s going to be hard for you to make that decision to go to grad school because it makes it even riskier for you.”

Improving working conditions and wages might help the university to diversify its graduate student population, Malczynski said. She is Latina and originally from Albuquerque. She said when she was applying for graduate school, many friends who were already in it were telling her that she shouldn’t because they didn’t think it was worth it.

“They were saying, ‘We get overworked. We don’t get paid very well. It’s very stressful,’” she said. Now when she talks to union members, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds without financial security or parents to rely on, they are considering quitting because they could get paid better as teachers for a public school, for example.

“If we improve working conditions, we will be able to increase graduation rates for Latino people and other minorities,” she said. “When I was looking at geography graduate programs, I didn’t see almost any Latino or Hispanic professors at all.”

Emma Mincks, a teaching assistant in the English Department, has been active with the union since late 2016 or early 2017. Originally from Rapid City, South Dakota, she got involved because when she returned to UNM to work on a doctorate in literature, she wasn’t able to buy groceries.

“I was really struggling,” she said. “Even though I love teaching — and I loved teaching when I was here last time and enjoyed it — it’s still a lot of work, especially in our department.”

Graduate workers get paid for 20 hours of work per week, but most of the people Mincks knows are working at least 50 or 60 hours per week, she said. Usually, she is teaching more students per semester than many tenure-track faculty members. She teaches 50 students per semester, she said, but she gets paid as if she is a teaching assistant.

We’re not assisting anybody in our role as TAs in our specific departments. In the English Department, we are the sole instructors, or the instructor of record, for our classes. We create most of the materials on our own.

– Emma Mincks, union organizer and doctoral student

They create most of the materials on their own, she said. “We create the prompts and rubrics, and we have mandatory teacher trainings that we have to complete every year.”

They are highly trained instructors, too, she said, and to teach certain classes, they have to take a semester-long course. On top of that, they spend a lot of time grading assignments. In all, graduate workers at UNM teach more than 500 courses or 15,000 undergraduate students every semester.

The board’s decision

The unanimous order from the state’s Public Employee Labor Relations Board in August overrides legal conclusions issued by their hearing officer Thomas Griego. He recommended the case be dismissed in favor of the university administration on June 11.

Griego wrote that he agreed with the university’s argument that there was never any guarantee for the graduate students’ jobs, only that there would be funding for their department programs. He was also persuaded by their contention that graduate students do not receive wages but a stipend for assistantships and so are not employees of the university. 

In his recommendation, Griego relied on the definition of a “regular employee” as someone who holds their job for an indefinite period of time — a definition from UNM’s own policy manual. He argued that since graduate students work under time-limited contracts, usually called “assistantships,” they do not meet the university’s definition of regular employees and therefore do not count as public employees under state law.

The labor board threw that out, saying other public employees who have limited terms are already guaranteed collective bargaining rights.

This is an important step for public workers throughout the state, union members say, because it sets legal precedent. In June, nearly 60% of graduate workers at New Mexico State University filed for recognition as a union. The labor board’s decision will make it easier for them to negotiate a first contract with NMSU administrators, Malczynski said.

The UNM administration can still appeal the labor board’s decision while also stalling any bargaining negotiations. UNM spokesperson Dan Jiron said in an emailed statement that graduate students are “a critical set of learners at UNM,” but he stopped short of referring to them as employees of the university.

“UNM’s graduate programs, and our graduate student learners and researchers, contribute greatly to the university and are also crucial to the development of the advanced workforce within New Mexico,” Jiron said. “Graduate assistantships are an important mechanism to support these students as they pursue their studies. We look forward to seeing the written ruling of the NM State Labor Board concerning the status of graduate students receiving financial support through these assistantships.”

Jiron’s statement doesn’t seem to acknowledge that the labor board’s written ruling had already been publicly posted on its website. He did not respond to a followup email asking for comment on the board’s conclusion that graduate students are public employees.

For now, Malczynski said, the union is continuing to mobilize members and the community that supports them. They will hold a rally on Friday, Sept. 3, to send administrators the message that they should comply with the decision in good faith, and sit down and bargain with them as soon as possible.

Mincks said this is all for the benefit of future grad workers. “I know I’m not likely to see the benefit of any of our union movements in the time before I graduate.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.