Grad workers occupy UNM administration building

Instructors do their work near the president’s office to demonstrate value of their labor

By: - December 8, 2021 7:05 am
People sign in to the Scholes Hall work-in, an action pressing for the University of New Mexico to allow its grad student workers to unionize.

People sign in to the Scholes Hall work-in, an action pressing for the University of New Mexico to allow its grad student workers to unionize. The administrative building houses the offices of top decision-makers on UNM’s main campus. Workers occupied the hallway for 12 hours from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 7, in shifts, bringing their teaching and research work with them. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

In a camp chair on the lawn of Scholes Hall, Sarah Worland was grading papers. The teaching assistant and Ph.D candidate instructs two English classes at the University of New Mexico: a fully online class that she designed, and an introduction to composition class.

“I have a lot of grading to do,” she said Tuesday, hours before having to go teach. This week, there are 100 assignments awaiting her grades, plus 50 finals, and from that online class, another 48 assignments.

About 30 graduate workers occupied a hallway inside Scholes Hall around noon on UNM’s main campus in Albuquerque. They’d started at 8 a.m. and planned to go until 8 p.m. The building houses the university president’s office, the legal counsel for the school, the regents offices, provost, various academic VPs and more.

Worland, of Los Alamos, has studied at UNM since 2010 and worked here since 2014. She was actually the first person in New Mexico to ever testify in favor of graduate workers’ right to unionize during the hearings at the state labor board in May, according to Public Employee Labor Relations Board hearing logs.

English Department instructors Sarah Worland (left) and Kalila Bohsali grade papers on the lawn in front of Scholes Hall as part of the work-in demonstrating the value of grad students’ labor at UNM. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

“We are occupying Scholes Hall today for this work and to demonstrate the value of our labor,” said Hally Bert, a grad worker in the Community and Regional Planning program and a union leader. “The university continues to embarrass itself by challenging the state labor board rulings and denying our value as workers as human beings.”

Grad workers here have been trying to certify a union for more than a year in order to fight for fair wages and health care. The state labor board has repeatedly ruled in their favor and ordered UNM to conduct a card check that would likely certify the union.

UNM appeals grad worker union case to District Court

When the university on Nov. 19 filed a notice that it would appeal of the board’s decision, graduate workers started organizing within each of their departments to figure out who could occupy the building in shifts. The grad workers lined the hallway during their shifts, and set out coffee, donuts and bagels to keep them going. The tactic was inspired by a similar occupation of a school building in 2002 by graduate workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Outside near flagpoles by Scholes Hall, students in Alana Bock’s Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies class sat along a curved, stone bench. Coincidentally, that day’s lesson was about union organizing in relationship to gender as part of a unit on class, labor and the body, Bock said.

One of Bock’s undergraduate students, senior Hayley Myler, said when she first entered UNM, she had higher hopes as a music student and was majoring in music performance, with plans to go to graduate school there in another music field.

“Now that I’ve seen firsthand how the grad students have been treated the last four years, I would rather just take my chances with a bachelor’s degree than go through the unfair treatment of being a graduate worker here,” Myler said. She said she is sick of seeing her graduate peers overworked, underpaid and suffering from unfair treatment by the administration.

Alana Bock teaches her afternoon class in front of Scholes Hall as part of the work-in on Tuesday, Dec. 7. The day’s lesson was part of a unit on class, labor and the body. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

“All of us are making this research run, and they don’t give us nothin’,” grad student and union leader Kelsey Trevino said. “They say we’re not real employees. They say we’re grad learners. Can anybody tell me what that is?”

The university plans to appeal the statewide labor board’s decision that graduate workers are public employees under state law and have a right to organize. One of the arguments the administration’s attorneys have leveled against the grad students’ union effort is that they can’t be employees of the university because their work assignments can be as short as a single semester, making them more like temporary workers.

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

However, Ernesto Longa, president of the United Academics of UNM, pointed out that grad students’ employment frequently lasts for several years, with Ph.D candidates regularly guaranteed five years of assistantships.

That applies to Worland. Five years ago, after she received her master’s degree and got accepted into the Ph.D program here, she got a letter from the assistant chair of graduate studies for the English Department, she said. The letter said she would have funding for five years, totaling 10 semesters.

“I can only speak from my experience, but I have never known someone who was entered into the Ph.D program, maintained all their course requirements, was making progress in the program, who has not been given at least two classes each semester in some form of an assistantship as a teaching assistant or graduate assistant, for the time that they were guaranteed when they came into the program,” Worland said.

Longa laid out some of the other employment conditions that show yes, graduate students are employees:

  • They have employment contracts that specify their job duties and compensation, and describe their employment as a percentage of a full-time employee
  • They fill out I-9 employment eligibility and W-4 employee withholding allowance forms, their stipends are reported as wages on W-2 forms
  • They pay income taxes on their stipends
  • Their work is subject to the supervision of other UNM employees

A local branch of Communication Workers of America represents custodial and other service workers on campus, and is part of a coalition of UNM unions with the grad students, faculty and staff.

CWA organizer Milagro Padilla said it doesn’t matter whether someone is teaching a class, grading papers, mopping floors or serving fast food: “Your work is work.”

“It’s unbelievable that the university would tell these people that they’re not workers, that they’re graduate learners,” he said. “Work is work, and that work deserves to be valued and respected.”

Worland asked why so many espouse teaching as such an important profession, but still undervalue it by not paying enough money to teachers at all levels.

“If we don’t value teaching, raising up generations through education, then what do we value?” she asked. On top of that, especially with students returning to in-person classes during the pandemic, there’s also tons of emotional labor that goes into teaching, she said.  

“That’s part of teaching as well, being there for your students,” she said, “as well as the very tangible labor of grading assignments, creating assignments, teaching classes, showing up and being there, teaching classes, answering questions.”

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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.