Mizzou is insulting graduate workers

July 11, 2018

The University of Missouri in Columbia would rather fight an uphill battle against a legal ruling favoring grad workers than negotiate an agreement, writes Jeff Stilley.

THE UNIVERSITY of Missouri (known as Mizzou) in Columbia has decided to continue resisting the right of its graduate workers to unionize, even after a judge unambiguously affirmed their right to do so.

The Coalition of Graduate Workers (CGW), Mizzou graduate workers’ National Education Association-affiliated union, formed after an April 2016 vote that carried with 84 percent approval. The university immediately refused to recognize the union, and CGW sued for union recognition in May 2016.

In late June, a Boone County judge ruled that Mizzou graduate students are indeed employees, and therefore have the right to unionize.

The spark that ignited the unionization drive came in mid-August 2015. As graduate workers prepared for the start of the semester, the administration sent an e-mail on the day that the previous school year’s health insurance plan was due to run out.

The short e-mail stated that in less than 13 hours, every graduate worker would lose their subsidized health insurance, due to the university’s interpretation of the Affordable Care Act.

A demonstration in support of grad workers at the University of Missouri
A demonstration in support of grad workers at the University of Missouri (Coalition of Graduate Workers | Facebook)

While graduate workers don’t have access to the higher quality health plans of faculty and staff, they did get an insurance plan paid for by the university. This e-mail put all that in jeopardy

Within hours, e-mails and Facebook messages flew between outraged graduate workers. A few days later, 500 worried graduate workers met to discuss their options. Demonstrations were planned and a coordinating committee established.

By October 2015, organized graduate workers pressured the administration into reversing course and reinstating the insurance subsidies.

The trust had been broken, however. Not only did the administration’s e-mail reveal a complete disregard for the well-being of its graduate workforce, but it was clear that they viewed graduate workers as overly dramatic “kids” in the ensuing weeks.

Mizzou also failed to make any substantive recognition of racism on campus during the Concerned Student 1950 revolt against then-President Tim Wolfe, and faculty and deans were disgruntled with Chancellor Bowen Loftin for other reasons.

Even as the administration promised a huge increase in pay when unionization became a possibility — some people who made $10,500 during 2014-15 now make $20,000 — Mizzou graduate workers voted overwhelmingly to unionize in April 2016.


BOONE COUNTY Judge Jeff Harris just gave his “clear and unambiguous” ruling on the case.

Referencing the National Labor Relations Board ruling establishing the rights of Columbia University graduate workers, Harris declared graduate workers are employees as an “undisputed fact” under the Missouri state constitution.

Mizzou graduate workers do a variety of jobs on campus, including grading papers as teaching assistants, developing and teaching undergraduate courses as graduate instructors, and collecting and analyzing data as research assistants.

Most graduate workers officially work 20 hours a week, and the university requires them to state they will not work more than 28 hours a week, in order to deny them regular employee health insurance. The reality is that the majority work many more hours, even as they take courses and pursue their own research.

It is worth quoting from the judgment at length:

[G]raduate workers are, in fact, “employees” under the plain and ordinary meaning of the word. No extraordinary or tortuous analysis is necessary to reach this conclusion...

In its supplemental reply brief, the University argues — for the first time in this case — that the “understanding of the term ‘employee’ by Missouri voters in 1945 [during a vote on a constitutional referendum] is the only relevant definition” and that voters in 1945 were “intent on protecting private industry” and not graduate workers...Although this is a creative argument, it does not yield a different result. The switchboard operators and milkmen of 1945 may not have foreseen a future in which graduate workers would teach computer engineering for $20,000 a year, but they would have certainly understood the basic concept of work in exchange for wages. The means of employment have changed since 1945, but the basics of employment have not...

The Court orders the University to recognize and collectively bargain with the Coalition of Graduate Workers as the exclusive bargaining representative of graduate workers at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

In sum, Mizzou has no realistic legal argument to appeal.


THE UNIVERSITY of Missouri Board of Curators, an unelected group of corporate lawyer-types, holds the real power on campus.

While the current system president and campus chancellor put a friendly and concerned face on the administration, the curators show open contempt for the very idea of democratic shared governance in higher education.

They also remain firm in their conviction that the anti-racism protests of 2015 carried no substance and were purely a result of weak administrators and underfunded marketing efforts.

On the afternoon of Judge Harris’ decision, Mizzou spokesperson Christian Basi stated the curators had not made a decision about whether to appeal and would have to study the document first.

But at a regularly scheduled press conference prior to a curators’ meeting the following morning, President Mun Choi said categorically they believe graduate workers are not employees and will “respectfully” appeal the ruling.

This news came after the Curators’ Chair David Steelman admitted he had not read the ruling, nor discussed it with anyone.

Clearly, the curators had previously made it clear to President Choi behind closed doors that they were prepared to commit significant resources towards blocking collective bargaining. Whether they think they can get an anti-union judge like Samuel Alito to agree with them or they think CGW will fizzle out is unclear.

Outgoing CGW Co-Chair Eric Scott observed at the press conference that the curators previously claimed they merely wanted legal clarification before beginning collective bargaining. The decision to appeal reveals their true intent: “You are trying to bust our union,” he told them.

The CGW remains strong and resolved in its fight for union recognition. If the curators secure an injunction on collective bargaining for the appeals process, only time will tell if the union can maintain commitment through turnover of graduate workers coming and graduating.

One thing is obvious: Though the University of Missouri purports to be a public institution, the unelected and unaccountable curators will continue to fight shared governance and workers’ rights to the bitter end.

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