Graduate student employees hold grade-in to make their work publicly known

Yes, they’re still mad.

Graduate students held a Grade-In Feb. 24 because though they get pay checks and do taxes, they say the university does not recognize them as employees. From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., they sat inside of Jesse Hall and conducted their classes, graded papers, and made a statement about how the university treats their grad students.

“We are paid a wage,” posters read in Jesse Hall’s entrance for the Coalition of Graduate Workers grade-in Wednesday. “We receive W-2’s. We pay taxes. What else do we have to do?”

Graduate student employees held office hours, tutored, graded exams and wrote lecture plans in Jesse Hall from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“We want to make that labor visible and to remind the (Board of) Curators that we aren't going anywhere, and certainly not silently,” a Coalition for Graduate Workers Facebook event read today.

The Coalition of Graduate Workers first seeks to achieve graduate student employee recognition by the UM System, action coordinator Sarah Senff said. The coalition would then like to unionize, certify the union and elect officials, she said.

“Attempts to define student employees as solely ‘students,’ to the detriment of either their organizing rights as employees or to the detriment of any other of their employee rights, will be interpreted as an act of intentional disenfranchisement,” Doug Valentine, General Assembly representative of the Graduate Professional Council wrote in a resolution this week. “It would hinder both their right to democratically determine union representation and their right to secure other standard labor-related protections.”

The Coalition of Graduate Workers would like to represent their interest as a collective group to ensure MU’s 2,700 graduate employees have fair and enforceable contracts and working conditions, Co-Chairman Connor Lewis said.

“For decades, the Graduate Professional Council has been doing great work to advocate for graduate students,” Lewis said. “The university has been unwilling to listen to that advocacy. They have traditionally put a student on a committee to claim that they consulted with students, but they’ve ultimately done what they’ve wanted.”

Last semester’s graduate student issues, specifically those regarding health care coverage, “proved we needed a grassroots movement in order to make changes,” Lewis said.

The development of the Coalition of Graduate Workers has led MU administrators to make progress in addressing issues such as low pay, specifically promising an increase in graduate stipends, Lewis said.

Senff said there is no guarantee that MU will follow through with its administrative promises to graduate students. Promises aren’t enough; they are just words, she said.

“We have been encouraged by the steps that the campus is trying to take to listen to our concerns even though many of those steps aren’t quite enough,” Lewis said. “It’s the University of Missouri System that is becoming the problem now. The system has tried to stonewall us at every turn, and at many times, has lied to us in order to prevent us from exercising our democratic right to vote on union representation.”

GPC Director of Communication Matt McCune said that in back-to-back meetings, UM System administrators claimed they have gone through the proper shared governance channels to address graduate student rights despite never speaking to Faculty Council and GPC.

“The political environment in Missouri has gotten toxic due to fear of backlash,” Lewis said. “HR is calling the shots, and when it comes down to it, these people are trying to maintain the status quo. They are bosses acting like bosses, and the bottom line is that no boss likes employees standing up for themselves.”

Senff said the Coalition of Graduate Workers has begun court proceedings to declare graduate students’ employee status. Graduate students carry out many of the same responsibilities as faculty, so there is no reason for the UM System to not acknowledge them as employees within Missouri law, she said.

“The University of Missouri System has chosen to take the hard route, and we are willing to do it that way,” Senff said. “We want to be able to enact our constitutional rights. A collectively bargained contract is the only thing that will make us feel secure in our position at the university.”

McCune said GPC, as the official graduate student government, not only supports graduate students as employees who deserve full labor rights, but acknowledges their right to unionize.

“We are trying to raise awareness of our value at Mizzou,” Senff said. “We don’t just study at Mizzou, we work.”

Edited by Taylor Blatchford | tblatchford@themaneater.com

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