Why New Mexico State Graduate Students are Fighting to Unionize

Bryson Stemock is a third year graduate student at New Mexico State University studying the baryon cycle of galaxies via quasar absorption line spectroscopy. He is currently one of the leaders of the student-driven push to form a union. In his free time, Bryson likes to play the piano and video games.

tl;dr: Graduate students at New Mexico State University work for poverty wages and in response have unionized to bargain for acceptable working conditions. Presently, NMSU is paying a union busting lawyer to make ridiculous claims (e.g., graduate students aren’t employees) rather than bargaining with the grads who teach their classes, perform groundbreaking research, educate the public through outreach, and more! If you don’t have time to read this article, but have two minutes to show your support, please sign our petition calling on the NMSU administration to cease their baseless legal obstruction of our union certification and path to the bargaining table at http://bit.ly/NMSU_GWU_Petition and follow our social media accounts for updates, linked here: https://linktr.ee/nmsufight. The grads at the University of New Mexico are engaged in a similar fight, which you can stay up to date on at https://twitter.com/unmgradworkers.

Author’s note: Given that the audience of this article is astronomy-centric, I’d like to take time to voice my appreciation for the hard work and dedication of the faculty in the NMSU astronomy department to provide consistent summer employment to all graduate workers in our department and tuition coverage for as many as possible. It is thanks to this support, as well as their continued support of our union endeavor, that myself and others have been in a position allowing us to spearhead our fight as graduate workers at NMSU. Last of all, I’ve been asked to share this statement of support from the department: “The NMSU Astronomy Department is dedicated to the wellbeing of its graduate workers and to ensuring just compensation for their work. As such, we support our graduate students in their efforts to promote this cause.”

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My name is Bryson Stemock, and I’m a third-year astronomy graduate student at New Mexico State University (NMSU). To say that the pandemic has been eventful for graduate students in New Mexico would be a wild understatement. After two plus years, the graduate students at the University of New Mexico have finally had their union officially certified and our own union here at NMSU isn’t far behind. Personally, it takes nearly all of my time and energy just to manage my own research and, previously, coursework and teaching responsibilities. If you’re generally swamped in the required activities to be a graduate student like me, then you likely know very little about the labor structure of your home institution, let alone others. Let’s take a step back and look at the working conditions at my current institution, NMSU

Life as an New Mexico State Graduate Student

The salary for an incoming graduate student at NMSU is $18,435. However, unlike most research institutions, including 80% of our peer institutions, NMSU does not provide any sort of tuition remission. Tuition costs $6,311 in 2021-2022, so congratulations, your salary is actually $12,124 before taxes – below the federal poverty line of $12,880! This has forced far too many NMSU grads to take out student loans, adding onto any loans they may have taken on during their undergraduate studies. As unacceptable as this is, it isn’t the only problem here.

If you’re a domestic student, NMSU will not provide you with any sort of health insurance. For comparison, 74% of our peer institutions provide some form of health insurance for graduate students. This is harmful to NMSU grads for multiple reasons. In the US, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to afford adequate health insurance when your salary is below the federal poverty line. To make matters worse, New Mexico’s health insurance marketplace isn’t equipped to handle graduate students. To calculate the financial support you can receive from the government, the marketplace uses your listed salary of $18,435, not your actual salary of $12,124 after tuition. This means that your salary is overestimated and less cost is deducted from health insurance premiums than you actually need to afford any reasonable plan. Because of this, a 2020 informal survey run by NMSU grads found that 59% of domestic graduate students at NMSU are unable to find affordable, adequate health insurance and instead choose to go without. As part of that 59% until very recently (thanks to external funding), I can personally attest that living without health insurance during a pandemic is a miserable experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.

Are you an international student? Don’t worry, your situation is even worse. Most visa-holders are required to purchase health insurance, which usually translates to international grads being required to pay for whatever plan NMSU gives them. Over the past couple of years, this plan has frequently changed hands between providers and consistently increased in price. If you have a spouse and a child, this plan will cost you $10,956 per year, bringing your pay before taxes down to $1,168 for the entire year. Furthermore, this plan hardly provides adequate coverage. Some international students have found it necessary to leave the United States simply to pursue proper healthcare!

Now let’s talk about summer employment. During Summer 2020, 84% of NMSU graduate students were unemployed for some portion of the summer while 26% were unemployed for the entirety of the semester. This means that grads are either performing research and other work functions without receiving a paycheck or simply putting their degree on hold for months at a time, barred from progressing their degree due to this financial hardship. Moreover, if you’re lucky enough to remain employed during the summer, NMSU regularly fires and rehires grads under different employment categories throughout the year, which can cause more taxes to be removed from your summer pay than your pay during the rest of the year. Personally, this process would cause my summer paychecks to decrease by around $100 per paycheck simply because NMSU decides to classify my job differently during the summer than the rest of the year. That isn’t all, though. While domestic graduate students at least have the option to pursue alternative employment during the summer, international students are restricted by their visas and are unable to seek out any sort of paid position during this period of unemployment.

All of these talking points have addressed the best-case scenario for a graduate student on NMSU’s payroll. Unfortunately, though, we know that a host of workplace problems can crop up during a graduate student’s studies. Currently, NMSU’s grievance process is grossly insufficient to help any graduate students subjected to discrimination, harassment, or any other mistreatment by their advisor, their peers, or otherwise. This process can last for years without offering any relief to victims, many of whom leave NMSU before their case is concluded by the university. This must change. Graduate school is stressful enough as it is, and the burdens that NMSU adds financially are already too much. Failing to provide the framework for a safe, inclusive working environment is entirely intolerable.

A Worker-driven Solution: Unionization

For these primary reasons, the graduate students at NMSU have come together to form a union and fight for fair working conditions. For far too long, NMSU has gotten away with paying their hardworking, innovative graduate students poverty wages. Graduate students teach or assist with a vast majority of introductory level undergraduate classes and more, reaching tens of thousands of undergraduate students every day. Through no fault of their own, faculty could not successfully run their undergraduate courses without us and graduate teaching assistants are often the ones undergraduate students come to for help. We also perform a majority of the university’s public outreach, engage in cutting-edge research, and write grant and fellowship proposals that bring in millions of dollars to the university. Put simply, New Mexico State University works because we do.

In New Mexico, under the Public Employee Bargaining Act, public workers need only sign a majority of the bargaining unit (in our case, all graduate assistants on NMSU’s payroll) up on union cards. Once this is complete, there is only the matter of the local labor board counting the cards, confirming the bargaining unit, and finally certifying the union. Once this process is completed, the employer must bargain with the union in good faith to agree on a contract. We’ve unionized under UE, or United Electrical, Radio, & Machine Workers of America, because of UE’s historical and continued dedication to unions composed of and controlled by the workers themselves, reflected in their slogan: The members run this union.

On February 4, 2021, after over two years of hard work and planning, we went public with our union drive. Before the end of the Spring 2021 semester, nearly 60% of all NMSU graduate employees had signed cards in support of the union, joining the fight for fair wages and compensation! On May 12, a group of Organizing Committee members carried hard copies of these cards to NMSU’s labor relations department, officially submitting our majority vote to unionize and bargain with the university. On a personal note, I can’t begin to express my gratitude and pride in every single person who helped with this effort at a time when each of us was more isolated than ever from one another.

A group of ~20 people in a park with trees. They all have masks on. One is holding a flag that is red and black with text that is not readable. These are members of the organization committee to form a Union at New Mexico State university
A group of the NMSU Unionization Organizing Committee

In a shocking (to no one) turn of events, NMSU has opposed the lawful certification of our union. Rather than bargain with their employees to agree on proper wages and working conditions, the NMSU Board of Regents has instead elected to hire a union-busting lawyer and pay her nearly $200 per hour to ensure that we remain below the poverty line. Initially, our case to certify the union was handled by NMSU’s own labor board. However, after continuously delaying hearings into October 2021, the NMSU labor board’s inability to fill vacant positions led to its decertification and the transferral of our case to the state labor board, the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board, or PELRB for short.

To add some context, our friends at the University of New Mexico have also unionized and have been fighting for their own fair wages and working conditions. More specifically, the PELRB handled their case before ours and ruled that “Graduate students fall within the Public Employee Bargaining Act’s (PEBA’s) definition of public employee.” This is important for two reasons: first, the PEBA states that public employees have the right to unionize, contradicting UNM’s claim that graduate students do not have this right; second, this decision does not specify that only UNM graduate students are public employees. It states that graduate students are public employees. Thus, transferring our own case with NMSU to the same labor board that already ruled in favor of the UNM graduate students was a big win in our eyes.

An infographic containing information laid out in the paragraph above. There is a time line running from Summer 2021 to February 2022 and lays out when decisions were made and when legal arguments held up the process of the NMSU grads creating a union

At the time I’m writing this, both NMSU and our union have submitted their legal positions to the PELRB. The NMSU administration maintains a stance that we are not employees (stipulating that we are “student employees”, not “regular employees”) and shouldn’t have the right to unionize. Allow me to repeat that. NMSU is arguing that the graduate workers who teach and grade their classes, educate and engage with the public through outreach, and perform groundbreaking research that brings the university funding and recognition are not employees. Furthermore, they argue that NMSU graduate students are not equivalent to UNM graduate students and that the PELRB shouldn’t use their decision on the UNM case as precedent for our case. The NMSU Board of Regents would rather see this case drawn out in a pointless legal battle than pay their own graduate workers livable wages.

Thankfully, the PELRB decided in late January 2022 that this is nonsense and ruled that we are indeed public employees with the right to unionize. Moreover, our friends in the union at UNM received certification on January 4th earlier this year and on February 14, the UNM administration withdrew their legal appeals and agreed to bargain a new contract with the UNM graduate student union! They’ve put in so much hard work and really paved the way for us here at NMSU, so it’s fantastic to see them reach another milestone in the fight for better working conditions. As for us, we will spend the next month in meetings with the state labor board to solidify who will be negotiating together (e.g., teaching assistants, research assistants, and other classifications of graduate workers) once our union is certified.

Our fight is not over. NMSU continues to draw out our certification process with needless, ridiculous legal arguments. This is why it’s important for us to bring our fights into the public spotlight. Unchecked and unnoticed by the public, these universities’ decision-making bodies will do anything in their power to ensure that they don’t need to treat their employees properly. Public pressure is vital to our cause and shows the upper university administration that the public will not tolerate the continued mistreatment of workers at the university that they fund with their tax dollars or even send their children to.

If you have two minutes to help us out, please sign our petition calling on the NMSU administration to cease their ridiculous legal claims and bargain with their graduate students immediately, which you can do by following this link: bit.ly/NMSU_GWU_Petition. You can stay up to date by following our union accounts on social media, which you can find by following this link: https://linktr.ee/nmsufight. If you’d also like to support the grads at UNM, you can find links and info on how to help on their twitter account, https://twitter.com/unmgradworkers. In the meantime, we will continue to fight to make our respective universities as great as they can be, in hope that future graduate students will be free from worrying about how to afford rent, groceries, and other necessities!

Learn more about graduate student unions!

Union History Part 1 – UC Santa Cruz Strike
Understanding the 2021 Columbia GWC-UAW Strike

Edited by Jenny Calahan & Lili Alderson
Featured image from NMSU Graduate Union Committee

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