Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Continuing a seesaw affair that started nearly a year ago, the University of New Mexico has filed notice in 2nd Judicial District Court that it intends to appeal a ruling that allows UNM graduate student workers to unionize.
“Because of the importance of these issues to our mission, we feel a correct and thorough legal examination of the issues is necessary and this is the role of the courts,” said Cinnamon Blair, UNM’s chief marketing and communications officer.
UNM graduate student Ramona Malczynski, chair of the graduate student workers coordinating committee and bargaining committee representative, said the students are more disappointed than surprised by UNM’s notice and consider it an effort to obstruct the negotiation process.
“The labor board has made two decisions in our favor,” Malczynski said. “The board ruled we can proceed with the bargaining unit representing all graduate workers and there should be no more delays. The university is wasting taxpayer money on a lawyer when the board has already ruled in our favor.”
Back and forth
On Dec. 9, 2020, UNM graduate employees – graduate students who work as teaching assistants and research assistants – filed for union recognition with the state Public Employees Labor Relations Board.
The students’ petition was thwarted on June 11, when PELRB’s hearing officer agreed with the university’s contention that graduate students are not regular employees because they work on contract from semester to semester and are not employed for an indefinite period of time.
Back came the graduate students, filing an appeal of the hearing officer’s decision with the PELRB. After hearing arguments from lawyers representing both sides in August, the board recognized graduate employees as regular workers who have the right to unionize.
On Nov. 9, the PELRB issued an order “that parties proceed with a card check to be scheduled without delay.” A card check is the signing of cards that indicates a majority of employees wish to be represented by a union.
Malczynski said more than 900 of UNM’s 1,600 graduate student workers have indicated support for a union.
“We already have the cards, and we have them signed,” she said. “Now the labor board has to count them and verify them.”
UNM filed its notice of appeal Nov. 19 and representatives of the graduate student workers filed a motion to dismiss the appeal on Nov. 22.
Worrying about rent
Malczynski said the average pay for graduate student workers at UNM is $14,500 a year.
She points out that is considerably less than the $23,000 a year that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Living Wage Project calculated was needed to meet the “bare necessities” of an Albuquerque single adult with no dependents.
A second year Ph.D student in geography and environmental science, Malczynski, 29, is taking nine hours in classes, which she said is considered the typical maximum for graduate students.
But she also works at UNM as a teaching assistant for at least 20 hours a week and has a second job as a research assistant for a UNM project that adds a maximum of 10 hours to her weekly workload.
“I am a teaching assistant for an introduction to physical geography lab,” she said. “I am teaching freshman and sophomore students how to do scientific research. I have 30 students. I do gradings, answer student questions, have office hours and manage the online web page for the course. My contract is for 20 hours, but it can be more than 20 hours.”
Malczynski said she does not get paid for work in excess of 20 hours.
“That’s one reason we want a union, to address overtime pay,” she said. “I’ve had to dip into my personal savings nearly every month. I worry about making my rent and have had to borrow money from my family. If something goes wrong, I’m not going to be able to pay for that.”
She said, too, that the health care plan for graduate students is inadequate. A survey done this year by the United Graduate Workers of UNM, revealed that 65% of graduate workers have ignored medical issues or delayed treatment because they could not pay out-of-pocket costs.
UNM’s Blair said the university’s notice of appeal is not meant to reflect negatively on the value of graduate student employees and their contributions to the university.
“The impetus for the appeal, which has yet to be filed, is that the university believes the PELRB has been incorrect and overbroad in its rulings, and this case will set a precedent for all research universities in New Mexico,” she said.