Judge Hears Final Arguments in Historic MU Grad Worker Unionization Case

Apr 23, 2018

Are MU graduate workers employees with the right to unionize?

To the nearly 100 graduate students and Columbia residents rallying Friday afternoon outside the Boone County Courthouse, the answer was a resounding yes.

“We are employees,” coalition co-chair Simona Simkins said determinedly into a microphone. She called for guaranteed access to health care, child care and livable wages for MU’s graduate workers.

However, inside the courtroom, that question was still up for debate as 13th Circuit Judge Jeff Harris heard final arguments in Coalition of Graduate Workers v. the Curators of the University of Missouri.

The decision will provide further definition to employee rights under the Missouri constitution. It hinges on the interpretation of Article 1, Section 29 of the Missouri Constitution, which states “that employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.”

“Employees plainly means employees,” said Natalie Teague, a lawyer for the Missouri National Education Association, which is representing the coalition. Teague said the strongest evidence of graduate students’ status as employees is in the university’s monetary compensation of their work through teaching, grading and research, among other duties.

“The constitution plainly says employees have the right to organize and bargain,” Teague said.

But Michael E. Kaemmerer, the attorney representing the Board of Curators, said that stance “industrializes and trivializes” the nature of graduate education at MU.

“Our position is that they (graduate workers) have a pedagogical relationship” with MU, Kaemmerer said. “They say they have a boss, but they have mentors. We may not agree with the characterization of employee status, but we all agree they’re students.”

The hearing Friday was the culmination of MU graduate students’ nearly three-year push for unionization.

“We got here by approximately 50 percent of classrooms at MU being touched by graduate student labor,” former coalition co-chair Sarah Senff said at the rally ahead of the hearing.

“We got here by an email in August 2015,” she continued, referring to MU’s unexpected cancellation of graduate health insurance subsidies in fall 2015.

That decision spurred graduate students, many of whom also work for MU as teaching and research assistants, to protest en masse. The protests pressured the administration to reinstate the subsidies within a week and to incrementally raise graduate stipends.

Those concessions weren’t enough for graduate students, who worried MU could just as easily revoke or reduce those benefits without warning. Thus, in April 2016, graduate students voted overwhelmingly for the Coalition of Graduate Workers to become the sole representative of their bargaining rights.

The union filed suit against the Board of Curators after it refused to recognize that vote. The board maintains that graduate students are primarily students and defines any work they do for the university as experiential.

That was the same argument their lawyers presented Friday.

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

MU isn’t the only university to find itself weighing the issue of graduate student unionization. Since 1969, when graduate workers at the University of Wisconsin became the first group to unionize, more than 64,000 graduate students at 28 public universities across the nation have joined unions, according to a summary judgment filed in the case. On Friday morning, news broke that graduate students at Harvard University voted to unionize.

Pointing to those unions as precedent, Teague said “this will not cripple the relationship between the graduate workers and MU.”

However, Kaemmerer said giving MU graduate students collective bargaining power could have an unwanted domino effect for the university. “Is the student-athlete next?” he asked.

Teague disputed that assertion, saying the scholarships athletes receive are not akin to the stipends graduate students earn.

While lawyers for the coalition kept returning their argument to Article 1, Section 29 of the state constitution, Kaemmerer’s statements relied more heavily on precedent set by the National Labor Relations Board. The federal legal entity oversees unionization at private universities.

He cited a 2004 decision by the NLRB, which ruled that graduate students at Brown University did not have the right to unionize. Echoing a point in that decision, Kaemmerer said that if MU graduate workers were given collective bargaining power, it could threaten academic freedom.

Kaemmerer also drew support for the curators’ side from the dissenting opinion in the 2016 Columbia University ruling, which essentially reversed the ruling in the Brown decision by supporting the unionization of Columbia’s graduate students. Columbia is appealing that decision.

Lawyers representing MU graduate workers cited the Columbia decision as support for their side but said relying on the whim of the politicized NLRB to decide the case isn’t nearly as useful as interpreting the Missouri Constitution.

Teague brought it back to the state level, emphasizing the Missouri Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Independence NEA v. Independence School District, which gave public employees explicit collective bargaining rights.

Now, it is up to Harris to decide whether MU graduate students are considered employees. There is no clear timeline on when a final ruling can be expected.