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Labor board clears way for UNM grad workers to negotiate as a union

Grad Assistants_via Samanta Cooney.jpeg
Samantha Cooney
Graduate assistants during the occupation of UNM's Scholes Hall December 7th. They worked from the administration building to demonstrate their labor to university President Garnett Stokes and others.

After a years-long organizing effort, graduate students at the University of New Mexico have scored a big victory. The New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board certified a card count last week showing a majority of the school’s 1,547 graduate workers favor collective bargaining.

State regulators Friday went one-by-one through union cards, checking signatures against school records before clearing the way for the United Graduate Workers of UNM to start negotiating with the university. The verification process took almost six hours.

More than 57% of student workers signed cards, 887 in total. The group wants higher wages, lower workloads, and more robust benefits, among other demands.

Political Science doctoral candidate Samantha Cooney said that although the grad students have won at each step so far, having the union cards counted feels almost like finality. She looks forward to bargaining for better working conditions.

Cooney said better conditions "includes better pay, better health insurance. We’re hoping to get dental and vision insurance - for the parts of our bodies that are not covered right now.”

Graduate workers at UNM make an average around $14,000 per year. The union says cost of living in Albuquerque for a single adult is near $23,000 per year.

Graduate assistants work on tasks like grading but also run discussion groups and research labs, and some teach courses like regular instructors do. They have contact with about 15,000 undergrads each semester at UNM.

Earlier this month graduate workers staged an occupation of the university's administration building where they taught classes remotely and graded students' work in order to demonstrate the value of their labor.

University attorneys successfully challenged and removed 72 union cards during the count, leaving more than 100 over what was needed for a majority. Still, lawyers for the university resisted signing the certification document and are separately challenging the process in state court.

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This segment is part of our #YourNMGov project, a collaboration between KUNM radio and New Mexico PBS. Support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.

Kaveh Mowahed is a reporter with KUNM who follows government, public health and housing. Send story ideas to kaveh@kunm.org.
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