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Back to the table

Labor board sustains complaint by NMSU graduate workers


This story has been updated with more detail about the union's complaint. 

A state labor board on Tuesday upheld a complaint against New Mexico State University alleging that administrators failed to provide information to the graduate workers union as stipulated in the collective bargaining agreement. 

The information in question centered around the union's request for a list of graduate workers eligible for partial tuition remission. The union said that the list was essential for ensuring NMSU provided tuition remission to those entitled to it. NMSU said providing that information was not readily available or would violate federal privacy laws protecting student records. 

The ruling — which highlights the union members' dual status as both workers and students — sends NMSU and the union back to the negotiation table to work out the issue. 

"If I were in your shoes, I probably would have said the same," Jeffery Jensen, an associate general counsel representing NMSU, told the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board during the meeting on Feb. 6. 

The union said in their complaint they requested “a list of all eligible bargaining unit members for the Union Scholarship” (in reference to the tuition remission) and “a list of the GA scholarships and balance as of the date this email was received.”

An NMSU administrator responded with, “The grad school is not prepared to provide you this information by tomorrow. I’ll be in communication with them to see when they might reasonably be able to provide you with either some or all of the information.”

As a reprieve, the union requested the board force NMSU to provide the information and notify all workers they violated the agreement.

The board, which oversees disputes between public entities and the workers that staff them, did not rule on the merits of the graduate workers' complaint. Instead, they sided with the workers by default, saying NMSU did not comply with state rules regarding complaints of this type. 

Documents the union provided to the Las Cruces Bulletin upon request show the union filed its complaint against the university on Nov. 30, 2023. According to state rules, NMSU had 15 days to file a response. Records show NMSU waited until Feb. 6, 2024 — the day of the board meeting — to do that. 

"I did sort of drag my feet on entering of default for a period of time," Thomas Griego, the board's director, said. "And I think that's about as much discretion as I had when we didn't receive (a response) until today."

The Bulletin asked NMSU why the response was delayed, among other questions. The university acknowledged the request but did not answer the Bulletin's questions directly. Instead, the university provided the following statement. 

"New Mexico State University continues to negotiate in good faith with our grad student union. The information the union requested was delivered last month. Unfortunately, because that information is gathered across multiple, non-connected platforms, and because the teams tasked with gathering this information have been operating shorthanded in recent months, that information wasn't delivered as quickly as the university would have liked. We're confident this information will be gathered and shared with the union in a more timely manner going forward."

While NMSU said they'd provided the requested information, a lawyer representing the union said they hadn't entirely. 

"I will acknowledge that there were two pieces of information that the union requested and that were named in the (complaint)," said Margot Nikitas, the union's general counsel. "The university did respond to one of those requests and provided information, it did not respond to the other request."

Alexander Allison, biology research assistant, takes the megaphone during a rally in front of Hadley Hall at New Mexico State University on Feb. 6, 2024.
Alexander Allison, biology research assistant, takes the megaphone during a rally in front of Hadley Hall at New Mexico State University on Feb. 6, …

Rally on campus

Still, the graduate workers union celebrated the ruling during a rally outside Hadley Hall a few hours after the meeting. 

"I think it's a success," said union organizer Hannah Sun. "It goes along with this pattern of NMSU not fulfilling its duties in the contract and generally the labor law."

Sun pointed out that the determination was in the union's favor, even if it was a default determination. 

"The fact that NMSU did not respond until today when this was filed way back in November (2023) is pretty disappointing," Sun said. 

About two dozen people attended the rally in front of NMSU's administrative building. The rally was more laid back than previous graduate worker protests, which featured marches across campus and into the bowels of Hadley Hall. But the frustration and feelings of disrespect that underlie the union's efforts were very much present Tuesday afternoon. 

Brad Hanson, a Geography and Environmental Studies Department graduate student, said he'd taken a step back from campus life and union agitation but recently returned. 

"The disrespect hasn't changed," Hanson said. "The people who lead us don't care about this place."

Another organizer, biology research assistant Alexander Allison, said NMSU negotiators often walk out of meetings with the union members even when the members are mid-sentence. 

"They would not thrive as a university if we weren't here," Allison said.

With the ruling, NMSU and the graduate workers union were told to return to discussions. However, statements made during the meeting suggested that NMSU and the union were somewhat entrenched in their positions. 

If they cannot compromise, the dispute returns to the New Mexico Public Employee Labor Relations Board for adjudication. 

In December 2022, NMSU agreed to a collective bargaining agreement with UE Local 1498-GWU, the union's official name. According to the agreement, NMSU agreed to cover two credit hours' worth of tuition, or about $650 per semester, as well as other provisions. 

Graduate worker unions have grown significantly in recent years. The University of New Mexico's graduate workers formed a union around the same time NMSU's graduate workers did. New Mexico's largest higher education institutions are part of a more significant national trend. 

A 2023 American Association of University Professors analysis found that graduate worker's unions had grown 44 percent over the last two decades. 

New Mexico State University, unions, labor, graduate workers union