Grad workers ask regents to call for UNM to drop legal fight

Regent suggests labor board ruled incorrectly and N.M. Supreme Court will decide whether they can unionize

By: - November 25, 2021 6:00 am

UGW-UE Local 1466 Coordinating Committee members Alana Bock, Jens Van Gysel, Kelsey Treviño, Nathan Secrest, Lindsay Morrone and Hally Bert, and undergraduate supporter Marisa Sedillo stand outside Los Poblanos on Nov. 23 waiting for the school’s regents to speak with them. (Photo courtesy of Alana Bock)

When representatives of the UNM graduate workers union tried to talk to the school’s governing council on Wednesday afternoon, one regent quickly drove away while four others refused to intervene.

The regents gathered Tuesday, Nov. 23, for lunch at Los Poblanos, a high-end restaurant, inn and organic farm in Albuquerque’s North Valley that boasts a “field-to fork” menu.

They were there to honor a former regent, according to the public notice. There were also two UNM Police Department officers posted outside the restaurant, according to one of the students and a police spokesperson.

The elected coordinating committee of the United Graduate Workers of UNM and an undergraduate supporter went to the open meeting around 12:20 p.m. hoping to hand-deliver a letter to the regents asking them to urge the UNM administration to withdraw its appeal of a state labor board decision ordering the school to conduct a card check that would likely certify the union.

But when they arrived, they were escorted off the premises by UNM staff, said Alana Bock, a grad student and union organizer.

Bock said the police got out of their vehicle and told the students they could speak to the regents so long as they weren’t confrontational. They stood nearby for most of the time that the students were there, she added.

They waited outside for about an hour-and-a-half, Bock said, so the regents could finish their lunch and speak with them.

“We did actually talk to the owner of Los Poblanos, who came out and actually asked us why we were there. And he said we were the chillest protesters,” Bock said with a laugh, “even though we weren’t there to protest. We were there to speak to the Board of Regents.”

The five regents at the restaurant were Robert Schwartz, Sandra Begay, Randy Ko,  Kimberly Sanchez Rael and Douglas Brown.

Eventually, they came out to talk to the students, except for Brown, Bock said.

“Before we could get to him, he kind of got in his car and drove off,” she said.

Lt. Larry Bitsoih, a spokesperson with the university Police Department, wrote in an email Wednesday that campus police are “onsite” whenever the regents publish a notice that a majority of their members are meeting.

He wrote the officers there did not create any reports about their presence and “according to officers, the event was non-eventful.”

Bock said the university argues for spending more money and allocating more funds to campus police in the interest of student safety.

“But in that particular moment, like, who’s the campus police protecting?” she asked. “Because it certainly was not us.”

A UNM Police Department vehicle parked outside Los Poblanos on Nov. 24, as the school’s Board of Regents was having lunch inside the restaurant. (Photo courtesy of Alana Bock)

All four regents who did speak with the students refused to commit to urging the administration to withdraw the appeal, Bock said.

By press time Wednesday, Mallory Reviere, special assistant to the board of regents, had not responded to a request for comment from the five regents who were at the restaurant.

In a video reviewed by Source New Mexico, Schwartz told the students he is “very pro-labor union” and that grad students are giving more than what they’re paid for.

Student Jens Van Gysel asked if he would commit to withdrawing the appeal. “No,” Schwartz said. “I don’t know enough about the underlying issues, and I’m really concerned about the regents getting involved in individual pieces of litigation.”

Eventually, Schwartz said, the regents will be briefed on the case and will make decisions about it, “but it’s really the president’s call, and she’s the person you should be talking to, of course.” 

Van Gysel noted that Schwartz is in a position of power that allows him to influence President Garnett Stokes’ decision-making in cases like this one.

“Yeah, and I do understand that, and I appreciate that,” Schwartz, a law professor, said. “The problem is trying to figure out where to exercise that power.”

One of the students told Schwartz that by refusing to urge the administration to withdraw the appeal, he is preventing them from getting to the bargaining table.

The state’s labor board have so far ruled the graduate students are public employees with a right to unionize and have a proper bargaining unit, but the university is appealing the case to District Court.

UNM appeals grad worker union case to District Court

Schwartz said the labor board “might have been wrong” in its rulings in the case.

“In fact, the New Mexico Supreme Court is going to have to decide the question, I think,” he said.

“The university’s appeal points toward a severe lack of regard for the education and wellbeing of a large population of its students,” the coordinating committee wrote in its letter to the regents.

They wrote that they are deeply concerned that UNM funds that should go toward education and the health of students and workers are instead being wasted on tactless union-busting.

“This is a crucial moment in time for the wellbeing of workers across this country, and we strongly urge you to be on the right side of history as a signal of proper conduct for future generations,” the committee wrote.

The next day, the grad workers released an email written by Regent Jack Fortner on Oct. 4 that reads, “You may not know by now that the Regent(s) voted to NOT appeal the decision to allow the grad students to organize.”

“I believe it was the right decision,” Fortner wrote.

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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.