Graduate workers to hold union authorization election after year of administrative pushback

The UM System has retained outside counsel to help determine the employee status of graduate workers.

A group of graduate students march to Tiger Plaza for a rally during the first week of school in fall 2015.

An email sent by the Graduate Professional Council to students last Friday sparked an exchange between graduate students and interim Chancellor Hank Foley, the latest in the effort to form a graduate worker union.

Since September, CGW has collected signatures, campaigned on social media and met with MU and UM System administration regarding unionization and graduate worker issues. In February, Middleton said the administration needed legal clarity on the employee status of graduate students before the union could be recognized. The election will determine whether graduate workers support CGW as their future representative in collective bargaining. Then, CGW will look to the courts.

Legal Battle

According to a contract obtained by The Maneater, the UM System has hired law firm McCarthy, Leonard & Kaemmerer, L.C. as outside legal counsel to provide advice and representation related to labor relations. The hourly billing rate for Michael Kaemmerer is $330 per hour, and for other attorneys in the firm it ranges from $175 to $285 per hour, according to the contract.

“I believe, if my math is correct, that before lunch, he makes as much as I do in three weeks,” CGW co-chairman Eric Scott said. “And you know, I actually teach students at the University of Missouri. It’s very troubling to me that they have this contract with Mr. Kaemmerer in the first place. … We’ve heard that there are probably going to be layoffs or that there are vulnerable nontenured faculty and staff being laid off or having their workloads increased. At the same time there’s a lot of crying poor, system HR is paying for this lawyer whose job is primarily to obstruct our constitutional rights.”

Scott said Kaemmerer sat in on “a number of conversations” with the administration under the pretense of being in town and deciding to stop by.

On April 9, CGW became officially affiliated with the Missouri National Education Association and plans to file a lawsuit to get a legal determination on their employee status.

UM System spokesman John Fougere did not comment on the UM System’s hiring of outside legal counsel.

Foley Exchange

Any vote to unionize will not be recognized by the university, Foley said in an April 8 email to graduate students in response to GPC’s email about the upcoming election.

“It is surprising, and disappointing, that at the same time MU administration has responded to graduate student requests for improved communication that this announcement was made without any consultation with us,” Foley said.

On April 6, the Coalition of Graduate Workers emailed interim Chancellor Hank Foley, interim UM System President Mike Middleton, the UM System Board of Curators and dozens of top UM System and MU administrators to notify them of the planned graduate worker union authorization election on April 18–19.

On April 8, the Graduate Professional Council emailed graduate students about the upcoming election and encouraging them to vote. GPC passed a resolution affirming graduate workers' right to unionize, but it does not have an official position on whether they should do so, Director of Communications for GPC Matt McCune told The Maneater in February.

Foley said in his email that GPC leadership did not mention plans to hold the union authorization vote in a meeting the day before CGW sent their email. His email incorrectly attributed the unionization efforts to GPC.

“The decision to unionize carries both significant pros and cons for our graduate students, and we feel it is in your best interest to be fully educated on the ramifications of unionization,” he said. “Should graduate student leaders decide to proceed with such a vote at this time despite the lack of consultation with MU administration, and should such a vote indicate that graduate students would like to pursue a union, university leadership will begin an educational campaign to ensure that all graduate students impacted by this decision will be knowledgeable about what this means at the University of Missouri.”

The Forum on Graduate Rights, of which CGW is an extension, responded to Foley’s email that day, saying the assertion that there was a “lack of consultation with MU administration” was “blatantly false.”

“It also demeans the autonomy of GPC, undermines shared governance, and implies that graduate student employees are unable to discern for themselves the value of the options available to achieve the improvements previously articulated via the FGR Demands,” the statement read.

Foley, GPC and CGW met later that day to go over his email, according a memo provided by GPC.

The Road to Unionization

The unionization effort began after graduate workers were informed 13 hours before their health insurance coverage period ended that it would not be renewed. The insurance was quickly reinstated in response to protests, but the event brought other graduate issues to the forefront, such as the lack of quality child care and housing.

In early September, CGW announced plans to hold a union card drive, which sought to collect a plurality of graduate worker signatures in support of holding a union election.

In December, CGW members met with university officials and informed them of the success of their drive and their desire to unionize. They met several times over the next two months.

“We said, ‘We want to work together with you on an election,’” Scott said. “And they asked us to give them until mid-February.”

In a Feb. 10 news release issued after an unpublicized meeting with CGW, UM System and university leadership responded to graduate workers’ desire to unionize by raising a question of legality under the Missouri Constitution.

“We believe that the university needs clarity on the graduate students’ legal right to organize, as there is no legal precedent or clarity in current Missouri law to make that determination,” Middleton said in the release.

The Missouri Constitution does not clarify if graduate workers are employees, and while employees have the right to unionize under Article 1, Section 29, students do not.

UM System spokesman John Fougere said in an email the university supports MU’s efforts in working with graduate students to find common ground.

For the union to move forward as the representative of graduate workers, CGW needs both the support of graduate workers and the administration. The election is following the appropriate protocols to officially indicate whether graduate workers support unionization.

In March, graduate student Ginny Chadwick, the former First Ward city councilwoman, withdrew her bid for Southern Boone County Commissioner after her supervisor told her she would have to either resign her position or take a leave of absence because of Regulation 350.020 on Labor Union Recognition in the UM System’s Collected Rules and Regulations.

"The holding of any elective full-time office in local, county, state or the Federal government is forbidden while the person is serving on the University staff," the rule states.

The wording in the section of the bylaws is set to change “staff” to “employee” and “he” to “he or she” in July.

“In terms of virtually all the paperwork, we get treated as employees,” Scott said. “With Ginny Chadwick’s desire to run for a full-time office, she got treated as an employee. Pretty much the only thing where they have chosen to say, ‘Well, we just don’t know’ is the question of our unionization.’”

Edited by Taylor Blatchford | tblatchford@themaneater.com

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