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Mizzou graduate assistants vote to form union, legal fight with university looms

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University of Missouri-Columbia graduate assistants have voted in favor of forming a union.

The vote was 668-127.

The move almost certainly sets the stage for a legal fight with Mizzou’s administration over whether graduate assistants qualify as employees.

Graduate assistants are students pursuing advanced degrees. They also teach classes, grade papers and conduct research.

Similar to part-time instructors known as adjuncts, colleges and universities nationwide are increasingly relying on graduate assistants as a cheaper alternative to full-time professors.

As of last fall, Mizzou had 2,569 graduate assistants and 1,973 faculty members.

But within the UM System, graduate assistants aren’t recognized as employees.

“We are seeking clarity on whether graduate students have legal rights to organize,” spokesman John Fougere said. “There is no legal precedent for that in current Missouri law to make that determination.”

The issue of whether graduate assistants have standing to collectively bargain varies state-by-state and, in some cases, institution-to-institution.

Leonard Perez, an administrator with the National Labor Relations Board explains that, for private schools in particular, the issue has been unsettled for the past 25 years.

Right now, the NLRB doesn’t recognize graduate assistants as employees. “But that all depends on the political bent of the board at any given time,” Perez said.

For public schools, the NLRB has no input and the matter is generally decided by the state, he said.

In Missouri, both sides have hired lawyers and are resigned to fight it out in court — the UM System vs. the Coalition of Graduate Workers, a campaign affiliated with the Missouri National Education Association.

Joseph Moore, a graduate instructor in Mizzou’s journalism school, said the university leaders could avoid a legal fight if they want to.

“This vote represents the democratic will of grad students,” he said. “The onus is on the university to recognized this democratic result. The university absolutely has the authority to recognize graduate workers as employees; they are choosing not to.”

Moore said he’s optimistic graduate students will eventually prevail. “I don’t think it’s a question of if we will be recognized, but when,” he said.

The push for unionization grew out of an uproar late last summer when the university abruptly stripped them of their health insurance subsidies just before the school year started.

After a loud outcry and a number of protests, university leaders eventually restored the benefits through 2017. Later, the university agreed to increase pay — in the form of stipends — for some graduate assistants.

But, for some, the trust between the university and graduate assistants has been damaged irreparably.

“Our unofficial motto is: No more surprises,” said Anahita Zare, the outreach chair for the university’s Forum on Graduate Rights.

“Our ultimate goal is a contract that guarantees a salary and health care benefits,” Zare said. “We don’t want anymore emails informing us 13 hours before school starts that we no longer have health insurance.”

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Koran Addo is a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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