UNM and NMSU graduate workers approve collective bargaining agreements

Union members say contracts a good start, but much work remains

By: - December 20, 2022 5:00 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.

A year ago, workers at the University of New Mexico were still fighting for the right to unionize. Here, they sign in to the Scholes Hall work-in, where they occupied the administrative building for 12 hours in shifts, bringing their teaching and research work with them. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

Graduate workers at New Mexico’s two biggest higher education institutions overwhelmingly approved their first-ever collective bargaining agreements with their bosses.

Rank-and-file members of the two unions representing graduate workers at the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University said in interviews they are happy with the contracts but consider them only a starting point for much more work to be done.

“NMSU and UNM are setting the stage for what grad workers can fight for and what grad workers deserve, and making a standard the universities are going to have to meet and realize they don’t just to get decide everything for us,” said Laura-Martin Alasandagutti, a teaching assistant in the French program at UNM.

Graduate workers at UNM ratified their contract in a 437-17 vote (96% in favor). Their counterparts at NMSU approved theirs in a 190-10 vote (95% in favor). Voting on each contract ended on Friday.

Ben Garcia, a graduate assistant in UNM’s biology department who’s studying fish immunology, said now that they’ve started, they need to keep going.

“We’ve now delivered something we can show the student body and graduate workers,” he said.

The contracts will take effect starting in the upcoming spring semester at both schools.

UNM spokesperson Cinnamon Blair said Monday she needed to wait to comment on the ratification until after UNM receives a signed copy of the contract.

NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu weighed in on Monday, saying that though the agreement must still be formally approved by the university, he’s hopeful that they’re on a course that will mutually benefit everyone involved.

“We’re delighted this contract has been approved by our graduate assistants’ bargaining unit,” he said in a written statement. “NMSU’s graduate assistants teach classes, and conduct research and outreach efforts, and serve as mentors to our undergraduates.”

What’s in the contracts

The UNM contract provides a 7% raise, while the NMSU contract provides a 6.8% raise.

The NMSU contract only provides raises to research assistants “dependent on available funds.” This is not fair, said Lindley Hornsby, a research assistant in the NMSU social work program.

“We need an equitable increase for research assistants,” Hornsby said.

Garcia was not expecting such a high wage increase from UNM management, and he said it will allow him to travel to see family.

“It’s obviously not enough, given the increases in the cost of living, and it’s not enough in that it’s a one-time raise, but it’s going to increase quality of life overall and let a lot of people not have nearly as much financial stress,” Garcia said.

UNM will also cover 100% of graduate workers’ health care costs and 25% of their dental care.

The U.S. government makes international students pay a fee, which he said functionally denies higher education to many of them. But from now on, UNM will cover those fees.

The NMSU contract also requires management to provide official contract letters with specific, detailed job duties, and a start date, Hornsby said.

“Previously, we didn’t have this,” Hornsby said. “I was coming from out of state, and I didn’t know, two weeks before I was supposed to move if I was officially hired.”

Both contracts create a grievance process for graduate workers, including a written nondiscrimination clause.

“We didn’t have that before,” Hornsby said. “Before, we could pretty much get fired for no reason.”

What’s not in the contracts

One of the main issues graduate workers at NMSU have been organizing around is tuition remission. The NMSU contract does not entirely cover tuition for graduate workers, but does provide the equivalent of two credit hours, or $686 of tuition coverage, said Alexander Allison, a teaching assistant in the biology department.

It also only covers a grad worker who doesn’t already receive the equivalent amount of money from NMSU’s scholarship program, Allison said.

Even though UNM graduate workers are employees, they still must pay for parking.

The contract doesn’t offer any parking discounts like other groups on campus but does give them the ability to set up a payment plan to pay the same amount in parking fees over the course of a semester, Alasandagutti said.

NMSU will provide $100 to international students for their health care costs, and search for a health insurance company to further reduce their health care costs. This is not good enough, Allison said.

Also not present in either contract is a right for graduate workers to go on strike.

Garcia said the union bargaining team did a great job with the situation in New Mexico, “with having next to no leverage,” referring to state law prohibiting public sector workers from striking.

Union members have agreed to start working toward a right to strike, given how important it is to have a bargaining chip in future negotiations, Garcia and Alasandagutti said.

“Unions are sort of neutered out of the gate,” Garcia said. “The university has no reason to bargain in good faith and actually make concessions with us if we don’t have any leverage over them.”

It’s not something the union would be able to get into a contract, Garcia said, but is a broader objective that would have to be accomplished by the union’s Political Action Committee lobbying state lawmakers in Santa Fe.

“We see what’s happening in California. We see what’s happening elsewhere,” Alasandagutti said. “Whether we want to strike or not, it is helpful to have that in our conversations and have that in UNM’s mind.”


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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.