Fifth-year doctorate at the University of New Mexico. Candidate Alana Bock said if her rent goes up by $ 100, she will have to find new housing.
Brad Hanson said he worked overtime to lead introductory classes at New Mexico State University, but didn’t have insurance coverage for it.
Both are graduate students who have accepted teaching positions at the state’s two largest universities to help pay for their education. Both say it’s time for graduate workers to be recognized as public employees in New Mexico, with the right to negotiate for better wages and health care benefits.
Both are working with United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America to try to make this a reality – and face opposition from universities.
In August, the Public Employees Labor Relations Board ruled in favor of workers graduating from the University of New Mexico, saying they counted as eligible public employees to unionize and overturning a June decision of a hearing officer.
Now Bock and other members of the United Graduate Workers of UNM say they are awaiting recognition from the state.
They began their organizing efforts in the spring of 2020 amid the onset of the pandemic, after graduate workers battled to extend graduation deadlines while juggling both distance learning and teaching. from a distance. They got few responses from university officials, they said.
“We hope to start negotiations by January,” Bock said in a recent interview. “We cannot go on for one more year with these really horrible working conditions. “
The move, which came after months of declining income and declining enrollment at state colleges and universities, drew a mix of responses from the school’s board in August.
“I wonder how graduate students would feel if we said we are going to double the salary but have half as many positions as today because there is a limit on the resources we have and we have to determine what a jackpot it’s going to come from, ”Regent Rob Schwartz said at a board meeting following the state’s decision.
Bock said that when she started teaching as a graduate student, she was assigned her own class in the American Studies Department without “any formal training.”
“It was a lot of material that I didn’t know. I had to learn on my own… and create PowerPoints when I wasn’t paid, ”she said.
Bock said she made around $ 14,000 working 20 hours a week on a 10-month contract, turning to student loans and family support to cover necessary expenses.
She added, “It certainly has an impact on undergraduates when graduate students are already so overworked. “
Bock now teaches 30 hours a week as she researches Filipino American history for her dissertation. She hopes to become a professor at the university after graduating.
She said she came to college from California because the school’s American Studies program “is really great.”
She and others lack dental and visual benefits – and more than half of graduate workers in a bargaining survey said they delayed medical care due to affordability concerns.
But Bock said conditions are worse at New Mexico State University, where most graduate workers aren’t offered insurance benefits or tuition coverage for their work. Instead, they become eligible for the New Mexico Health Insurance Exchange and receive stipends.
According to the 2020-21 school year budget documents, graduate assistant positions at New Mexico State University accounted for 22% of the full-time equivalent teaching staff – and on the salary budget for all educators, their remuneration was 12%.
“Even though the NMSU offered a tuition rebate, we are still falling short of a living wage,” said fourth-year doctoral student Matt Varakian. candidate for the Department of Astronomy at the Southern New Mexico School, in a recently broadcast live forum on organizing efforts at the school.
Kathy Key Tello, a first-year master’s of fine arts candidate in the English department at New Mexico State University, told the forum that she made about $ 18,400 this school year teaching a compulsory English course alongside her research – but she predicts that she will use more than $ 6,000 of that income to pay for her own school.
The lack of insurance benefits for part-time professors and graduate workers, as well as “unliveable wages”, were listed in a resolution of no confidence recently passed by the Faculty Senate against the administration. The student body government passed a similar resolution.
The faculty’s resolution argues that administrators fail to maintain the school’s mission by mis-spending funds on non-transparent administrative hires and bypassing faculty and student input into decisions.
Last month, the university launched a review of the claims. The results of an audit will be made public once completed, according to university officials.
Hanson, who is studying for a doctorate in geography, said workers graduating from the school had long tried to defend themselves through task forces and meetings with administrators.
He said earlier attempts to organize at the school had been crushed by administrative delays and the turnover of graduate students.
In May, hundreds of graduate workers, Hanson included, signed union cards at the school.
Unlike the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University has a local labor council for union decisions. The board did a “card check” and confirmed that graduate students had adequate support for a bargaining unit, but decided to delay further action until the decision was made. Status in August.
In October, the school-hired labor lawyer Dina Holcomb argued the decision is “tentative”, everything could change – even if union advocates see it as a green light for all workers graduating from the school. State.
The University of New Mexico hired Holcomb in 2019, and she represented the school through the graduates union petition.
According to financial documents provided by United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, the school paid $ 195 per hour for its services this year.
In April 2021, the university spent almost $ 16,000 on Holcomb’s services and in August it spent over $ 2,000.
“This decision was not decisive for this bargaining unit,” she said at a local labor council meeting in mid-October on behalf of New Mexico State University. . “I don’t think graduate students at NMSU are the equivalent of graduate students at UNM.”
The statement was a source of anger for graduate workers and some teachers at the school.
“What is the significant difference between a graduate of UNM and a graduate of NMSU, if you are the state of New Mexico that funds these two institutions?” Hanson asked.
The answer could end up in the hands of the state labor commission.
Shortly after that October meeting, the school’s local labor council saw two resignations – which could void it, according to state rules.
A hearing on Monday will determine whether the union petition is transferred to the state council, where the precedence of the August decision could mean a favorable outcome for graduate workers.