Historic labor victories in New Mexico: Graduate worker unions ratify their first contracts

On December 16th, 2022, hundreds of union members of United Graduate Workers of the University of New Mexico (UGW UNM) and New Mexico State University Graduate Workers United (NMSU GWU) voted to ratify their first collective bargaining agreements after seven months of negotiations with their respective universities, securing a historic victory after decades of struggle. Graduate workers at both universities have a long history of trying to improve their working conditions through labor organizing and finally won union recognition in 2022. 

These unions are important to the labor landscape of New Mexico because UNM and NMSU are two of the largest employers in the state. Graduate workers at both institutions unionized because they are some of the most underpaid and overexploited educational workers in New Mexico. This victory comes as part of the wave of graduate worker and higher education labor organizing across the country in the past two years. Both unions are affiliated with United Electrical Radio and Machine Workers of America, a parent union whose union locals are now mostly graduate worker unions.

Decades-long struggle

Both UGW UNM and NMSU GWU were born out of decades of attempts at organizing to improve graduate worker working conditions. At UNM, organizing efforts were catalyzed by the pandemic when graduate workers clearly saw that they lacked basic protections as they were being asked to come to campus to work when others were not. They also realized the precarity of not having adequate compensation and benefits nor specifications about their work duties in their contracts. Plus, UNM has a history of rampant sexual harassment and assault on campus and abuse of graduate workers, so winning a better process for addressing these issues was at the forefront of workers’ minds. 

At NMSU, graduate workers faced similar issues of employment contracts that did not list work duties or expectations, as well as widespread mistreatment at the University. In addition, NMSU is one of the only universities where graduate workers had no tuition coverage as a benefit of their job. Most graduate workers were spending one third of their income on tuition leaving them with few funds to pay for rent, healthcare, and food. Many graduate workers reported skipping meals and avoiding going to the doctor at both universities. Finally, international graduate workers at UNM and NMSU were some of those facing the most financial hardship and abuse because of the limitations of their visas and lack of support from the universities.

Throughout their unionization and first contract campaigns, UGW UNM and NMSU GWU faced intense opposition from their university administrations. The universities even hired the same expensive union-busting law firm to stall both organizing efforts. UGW UNM was the first graduate worker union in the state to file for recognition and could do so with a simple card check because of the recently amended Public Employee Bargaining Act (PEBA), which is a perfect example of how labor law under capitalism is a double-edged sword, often limiting the power of unions. While PEBA makes it easier to file for union recognition, it takes away public employee unions’ right to strike. 

The University of New Mexico argued that graduate workers did not fit the state’s definition of public employees and made the union participate in a hearing to prove its members’ status as workers, despite clear indicators of employment such as graduate workers receiving paychecks and paying taxes on their income. UGW UNM threatened to strike when the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board (PELRB) indicated it would rule graduate workers were not covered by the Public Employee Bargaining Act. After this threat, the PELRB suddenly changed course and issued a decision that set the legal precedent for NMSU GWU to file for recognition without legal hurdles. Still, the UNM administration threatened to appeal this decision all the way to the New Mexico Supreme Court, but this threat was withdrawn after UGW UNM mounted public pressure on the University. NMSU GWU had to deal with outright incompetency of the University administration throughout the recognition and negotiation process. NMSU’s faculty senate and student senate approved a no-confidence resolution of the University President and Provost in November 2021 and both stepped down shortly after. 

Photo: NMSU GWU members march to the NMSU administrative building to deliver a petition with hundreds of signatures demanding living wages and tuition coverage on Oct. 27, 2022. Credit: @nmsugradworkers

Winning strategy of militancy

Both UGW UNM and NMSU GWU anticipated pushback from their employers at every step of their campaigns and never let up pressure whether it be through rallies, marches, sit-ins, building campus-wide union coalitions, gaining student and faculty support, press conferences, attending Board of Regents meetings, and collecting petition signatures. This meant these unions were one step ahead of the employers’ attempts at stalling by claiming legal uncertainties, passing the buck, or proposing ridiculous offers at the bargaining table. One key example of this was when the NMSU administration’s bargaining team tried to give NMSU GWU an ultimatum to end bargaining with a one-time offer of partial tuition coverage, and nothing else. NMSU GWU refused this offer knowing they could win more through continued struggle and ended negotiations with a contract that included much more than this offer.

PSL members in New Mexico consistently supported these union struggles over the past two years. They built undergraduate support for the graduate worker campaigns, showed up to militant actions,and spread the word about this important organizing.

Photo: Union members from other sectors join UGW UNM’s Rally for Recognition Sept. 3, 2021. Credit: Liberation Photo

First contracts lay the foundation for future struggle

UGW UNM and NMSU GWU gained a lot in their first contracts, but more importantly, these contracts set the stage for future struggle. NMSU graduate workers won 6.8% raises. UNM graduate workers won 7.12% raises, the highest first contract raise for a public graduate worker union in 15 years. UNM graduate workers had not seen a significant raise in over 10 years. NMSU graduate workers won tuition coverage for 2 credit hours, which many members agree is not enough, but sets a precedent to win more coverage in the future. Both unions won strong non-economic language including protections against discrimination, harassment, a grievance procedure for workplace issues and added benefits for international graduate student workers. Both unions also have language that guarantees a reopener on tuition coverage and/or raises in 2023. Graduate worker union members see their organizing as a way to transform higher education in the state to better serve and represent minority, first generation, and low-income undergraduate and graduate students. UNM graduate workers also voted by a margin of 95% to launch a campaign with other public sector unions in the state, including NMSU GWU, to end the no strike clause for public employees under state law. 

The unionization and first contract campaigns of UGW UNM and NMSU GWU demonstrate that union organizers must always look to the next struggle. Labor organizers can always anticipate pushback from their bosses in any campaign, but resolve, building coalitions among other unions and supporters and militant action can bring significant victories that expand beyond a single workplace.

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