Judge rules MU curators must recognize graduate student union

This story was republished with permission from the Columbia Missourian.

The University of Missouri’s graduate student workers are employees under the Missouri Constitution. Further, their union, the Coalition of Graduate Workers, is the sole collective bargaining entity for MU graduate students and the UM System Board of Curators must recognize them.

Those mandates are according to 13th Circuit Court for Boone County Judge Jeff Harris’ final decision Thursday in the case of the Coalition of Graduate Workers v. the Curators of the University of Missouri.

“The court finds that the graduate workers are ‘employees’ because the University, through its practices and policies, treats them like employees,” Harris’ opinion read, labeling his interpretation of the law as “undisputed fact.”

The decision expands the definition of employee rights under the Missouri Constitution. It also bookends a nearly three-year long battle between MU’s graduate workers, many of whom collect paychecks for their work as research or teaching assistants, and the Board of Curators, which so far has refused to recognize the coalition as a union.

“We’re ecstatic with the judge’s ruling,” said Nick Brothers, outreach officer for Coalition of Graduate Workers and a political science doctoral student. “The phrase ‘undisputed fact’ (says) that we fit the definition of employees under the plain language sense, and that the Missouri Constitution allows for no other reading,” Brothers said.

The case hinged on the judge’s interpretation of the word ‘employee’ in Article 1, Section 29 of the 1945 Missouri Constitution which states that “employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”

For many years, the courts reserved that constitutional right as one reserved for private sector employees; the Board of Curators argued it should be interpreted as voters in 1945 intended it, and therefore not recognize graduate workers as employees with collective bargaining power.

“Although this is a creative argument, it does not yield a different result,” Harris wrote.

“The switchboard operators and the milkmen of 1945 may not have forseen (sic) a future in which graduate students would teach computer engineering for $20,000 a year, but they would have certainly understood the basic concept of work in exchange for wages. The means of employment have changed since 1945, but the basics of the employment relationship have not.”

Legal precedent

Just as the coalition’s lawyers had argued prior, Judge Harris’ opinion noted the Missouri Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling in Independence NEA v. Independence School District gave public employees explicit collective bargaining rights as legal precedent for the decision. Further, Harris cited a 2016 decision by the National Labor Relations Board, the federal body that regulates private university employees, which supported the unionization of Columbia University’s graduate students. Columbia University is appealing that decision.

Eric Scott, former co-chair of the CGW and recent MU graduate, was one of the original organizing members of the union and said the judge’s ruling puts graduate students in a better position to advocate for labor rights.

“In the best scenario, this changes the dynamic of power at the university. It makes so that instead of graduate students having to beg, we can approach the administration on an equal footing and negotiate and bargain for a living wage, and reasonable work expectations.”

Thursday’s decision concludes a two-year legal battle between the Coalition of Graduate Workers and the Board of Curators.

“I feel like three years ago my life and the lives of just about every graduate student employee at the University of Missouri took a really sharp left turn,” said Scott, who found his calling as a labor organizer in the process. “All of the work that we’ve been doing since then has led up to this moment.”

Scott first became involved with unionization efforts soon after MU temporarily revoked graduate student health insurance subsidies in fall 2015. That motion spurred graduate students, many of whom are paid by the university to teach classes and conduct research, to speak out. Hundreds of students protested the decision; the insurance subsidies were reinstated, and MU officials also agreed to an incremental graduate stipend increase.

But graduate workers still were unsatisfied with the instability of their working conditions and benefits. So they moved toward unionization, following the lead of some 64,000 other graduate student workers across the country who have joined campus-level unions since 1969.

“We need these protections because we are some of the most vulnerable workers in academia,” said Drew Amidei, an English literature doctoral student and founding member of the CGW. “The amount of time that graduate students put into teaching two or three classes, helping our departments with research and talking to students every day is a full-time job. Without a union, there’s nothing protecting us from an unilateral taking away of our rights.”

In April 2016, graduate students voted overwhelmingly for the Coalition of Graduate Workers to become the sole representative of their bargaining rights. However, the MU administration pushed back, refusing to recognize the union’s collective bargaining power.

One month later, the graduate workers union filed a lawsuit against the Board of Curators, and until Thursday, that case had been tangled up in litigation.

“The hard work of a lot of people — a lot of graduate students has finally paid off,” Brothers said hours after the decision was announced.

Harris’ ruling comes two months after he heard final arguments in the lawsuit. Lawyers for the Board of Curators argued that graduate students are first and foremost students, and any work they do for the university should be considered experiential.

“It all ties into the higher education pursuit,” Michael Kaemmerer, legal counsel for the curators, told the judge at the hearing. “They’re students. They’re here getting a degree, that’s why they’re here. That to us is the key distinction.”

Harris ultimately disagreed with that notion.

“To reach the result desired by the university, the court would have to reject the plain and ordinary meaning of the word ‘employee,’ and instead give primacy to the place of employment,” Harris wrote. “This is a policy argument, however, that offers no legal basis for departing from the plain and ordinary meaning of the word employee.”

Kaemmerer could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon, and representatives for the UM System said they are unsure if the board will appeal the ruling.

“We haven’t made any decisions yet, we need to review the decision first before we decide what we’re going to do next,” UM System spokesperson Christian Basi said.

Although lawyers for the coalition have prepared the union members for the possibility of an appeal, Brothers said he is hopeful about the future of the relationship between MU’s graduate student workers and the administration.

“The hope is that the university will see that going any further with this will not benefit the University of Missouri, the students or the people of the state of Missouri,” Brothers said. “Now that we have this judgment in hand I hope that the university will see the value in collective bargaining.”

For now, the graduate workers who were involved in the case are focused on how the ruling could help to expand access to higher education and enhance MU’s competitive edge.

“One of the biggest barriers to graduate school is cost,” Brothers said. “For people with families, for people who are coming from less privileged backgrounds, our ability to collectively bargain for wages, benefits and worker protection are going to put us in a much more competitive position at the University of Missouri. I hope the curators recognize that.”

Looking back on his involvement with the union, Scott, who since has graduated and taken a job with a local labor union, had a more candid final take on what the legal battle says about MU’s commitment to diversity.

“In the long run, if Mizzou wanted to increase its diversity and outreach to the number of people that can attend this university — then they should have recognized us years ago.”

Supervising editor is Titus Wu: news@columbiamissourian.com, 573-882-7884.

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