UNM graduate workers ask for a raise, the University threatens to raise medical costs

Grad workers in Albuquerque to picket and march over health care costs, inspired by striking academic workers in California

By: - November 15, 2022 7:00 am

Graduate student workers walk across campus at a rally held on Monday at UNM. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

When Gisselle Salgado arrived on the University of New Mexico campus in August, they were excited to finally be able to see a doctor again.

At the time, they had not seen a doctor in over a year, which they understood to be pretty dangerous.

They are a fellow at the Center for Southwest Research at UNM, a United Graduate Workers (UGW-UE Local 1466) chief steward for the College of Arts and Sciences, and a steward for the Latin American Studies program.

Salgado thought the premium taken out of their graduate worker stipend would pay for their care, but when they went to student health care services, they discovered it was not. The UNM student health plan does not cover vision or dental, but that is not unique in American health care.

“So when it came down to it, it’s been almost three months on campus, I have yet to do any of these health care checkups, because I cannot afford it,” Salgado said in an interview on Monday.

They are not alone: In 2021, 65% of graduate workers at UNM reported they had delayed medical care due to cost, and 15% reported taking out medical loans to pay for their care, according to a survey conducted by the union. The average minimum stipend for a graduate worker at the university is $14,438 per year.

These conditions have left Salgado with the hard choice of either buying groceries or paying for a counseling session to treat their anxiety. They have also been unable to see a gynecologist because that kind of care is not covered by the policy.

“We are giving ourselves to our work,” Salgado said. “That’s why we expect the university to give us a bit back in return, to keep us stable, to keep us happily working for them.”

They said it feels like university administrators are using the health care costs as leverage in negotiations.

At a recent bargaining session, the university informed the union they were going to try to make graduate workers start paying 20% of their health insurance costs, said Christian Rhoads, a teaching assistant in the Department of Languages, Cultures and Literatures and a chief steward for the College of Arts and Sciences.

So the graduate workers will picket today at noon in front of Dane Smith Hall on the main campus in Albuquerque. After speeches at the picket line, they will deliver a petition to UNM administrators.

Update: Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, at 8:30 a.m.

University of New Mexico spokesperson Cinnamon Blair responded to a request for an interview by saying UNM does not comment on the details of of active negotiations, as required by state law.

She added that the university and the union jointly filed a letter with the state’s attorney general requesting clarification on an N.M. law barring state employers from paying more than 80% of workers’ insurance premiums.

Elle Herman is a graduate assistant in the American Studies Department and chief steward for various humanities departments. She sees her union’s struggle as one in solidarity with the 48,000 academic workers at the University of California system who walked off the job on Monday.

“I think a lot of us at UNM are looking to the UC system as a real source of inspiration and an idea of what this struggle might look like if the university continues to stonewall,” Herman said.

The graduate workers have given management and specifically UNM President Garnett Stokes a deadline of Dec. 7 to agree to a fair union contract. Union organizers say they need a contract in place to provide graduate workers stability in the upcoming spring semester.

If UNM doesn’t, the hundreds of graduate workers who have signed the petition will be thinking seriously about what their next steps need to be, “and whether we’re going to follow in the steps of the UC system and go on strike,” Herman said. 

Bosses suggest grad workers pay back health care costs

Graduate workers currently pay nothing out of pocket, according to Rhoads.

The policy is limited, it does not cover dental or vision care, and as in the case with Salgado, does not cover all costs.

As soon as the union started bringing up economic issues in negotiations, Rhoads said, the university told them they would try to use a state law allowing public-sector employers to only pay for 80% of their employees’ health insurance costs.

Not only did management want graduate workers to start paying for future health care insurance costs, Rhoads said, they also proposed graduate workers “pay them back for the past year of insurance costs since we’ve been recognized as employees.”

“Which, of course, is unacceptable,” he said. “That does not sit well with our membership.”

It’s difficult to calculate how much money would have to be paid back to UNM, he said, because management has not given them any information about how it would work.

Struggle part of fight for universal health care

Providing adequate health care is one way university administrators could show they care about their workers, Salgado said.

“In a time when the U.S. has shown that health care must be public,” they said. “Whether it be you getting sick, whether it be me getting sick, we’re all interconnected. We are all survivors of this pandemic, and we all have to stand together.”

Health care is a big deal, Salgado said, especially during the pandemic.

“This is something we can’t let go by, because it will very actively impact the lives and welfare of the students and the workers on this campus,” they said.

In light of the pandemic, the current level of health care in the United States is completely unacceptable, Herman said.

“We absolutely need universal health care, and I see this union struggle struggle—and other union struggles across the country—as a very, very important part of that fight for expanding the health care system, and really being able to actually improve everybody’s quality of life, not just the workers at UNM who are currently fighting,” she said.

The majority of students and graduate workers have been impacted by the pandemic, Salgado said, whether by virtual classes or family members becoming ill or dying from COVID-19.

“When we go to the bargaining table, these are the memories that hold us down,” they said. “This charging of past health coverage, as well as for future health coverage, it feels—at least to me, as a grad worker—like an intimidation tactic. This feels like a step back in these negotiations.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.