What is the Coalition of Graduate Workers?

The Coalition of Graduate Workers (CGW) is the graduate student employee union at the University of Missouri-Columbia. We are affiliated with the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA) and the National Education Association (NEA). MNEA is the largest educators’ union in Missouri (35,000 members), and NEA is the largest in the nation (3 million members).

CGW works to ensure all graduate employees have dignified working conditions and fair and equal pay. Our five primary goals, as enumerated in our Bylaws, are Organizing, Collective Representation and Bargaining, Education, Community and Solidarity, and Social Justice. 

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What is a union?

A union is a democratically run, non-profit organization that represents employees for the purposes of collective bargaining and contract negotiation. In non-unionized workplaces, working conditions are set solely by the employer. In a unionized workplace, employees and employers negotiate over terms of employment and working conditions.

Will I be forced to become a member of the union?

No. Membership in CGW is voluntary.

Will I have to pay agency fees?

No. In the public sector, unions in Missouri are not allowed to collect agency fees. Only members pay dues to the union.

What benefits will I get if CGW becomes recognized by the University?

The biggest benefit is simple: a contract means no surprises. You won’t receive another 11th hour e-mail revoking your health insurance because employers cannot change terms of a union contract without due notice and ‘good faith’ negotiation. You will have set expectations for your employment and a way to file a grievance if your supervisor mistreats you. It also means you will have real power to set what your working conditions will look like, because you will be able to vote on the contract that the union bargains with the University.

Joining the union gives additional benefits. Membership lets you vote in the General Assembly and enables you to serve as an officer or member of the Representative Assembly. Members also receive legal consultation and access to professional development and advocacy training. MNEA provides a wide variety of negotiated discounts including (but not limited to) discounts on existing cell phone plans, as well as insurance plans and loans. See the MNEA Member Benefits page and the NEA Member Benefits page for more.

If I join the union, what are my dues?

Members of CGW pay dues to the local and to our state/national affiliates. Local dues are set by a vote of the membership; currently they are set at $36 per year. State and national dues are combined, and are currently (as of the 2017-18 member year) $89.50 per year for first-year members. Most members have their dues taken out in monthly installments throughout the year from October to June, which comes out to less than $15 per month.

What sort of things can the union negotiate in a contract?

Although progress is usually incremental, unions secure very tangible benefits for their members. Since the formation of a graduate employee union at University of Iowa in 1995, they have secured a $7,500 increase in minimum stipends; on average, public higher educational employees (including graduate employees and tenure track and non-tenure track faculty) receive higher pay than those without unions. (NEA Higher Education Almanac; ILR Review)

Unions also commonly negotiate toward items like yearly cost of living adjustments, guaranteed parental leave, lower or eliminated supplemental fees, defined instructional workloads, defined leave policies, and clear grievance procedures that protect graduate employees. These items are not exhaustive of all things negotiated for in contracts.

How will I be protected by the contract?

CGW will provide you with union representation if your contractual rights are breached. We will also negotiate a defined grievance process that allows for multiple levels of appeal. If the University breaches the union contract, we can provide (through MNEA) legal support for the entire bargaining unit.

How does collective bargaining work?

Negotiating teams representing employees and employers work upon negotiating a mutually agreeable contract. Labor law requires that both parties act “in good faith” with the intent to reach agreement.

Who negotiates the contract, and will members be able to vote on it?

A bargaining team is selected by the union membership, and includes representatives from a wide variety of academic fields and pay-scales. The bargaining team will formally survey members of the bargaining unit prior to negotiation to determine contract priorities. Members must vote to ratify any negotiated contract; it is not uncommon for negotiations to continue if members have rejected a proposed contract.

I’m a research assistant funded by an external grant – am I still covered?

At the moment, yes. CGW’s proposed bargaining unit includes all the graduate student employee titles listed in the MU Human Resources Policy Manual. It is possible that the University of Missouri will contest our bargaining unit after we are recognized, however, so there is a possibility this will change in the future – but we’re planning to fight hard to keep all graduate workers covered by the union contract.

I’m afraid my stipend will go down – is that true?

No. We are committed to contractually ensuring that our wages do not decrease. Further, any negotiated contract must be voted upon and ratified by members, and it would be against the members’ best interests to vote to lower their own salaries.

Do we have the legal right to form a union?

Yes. Article 1, Section 29 of the Missouri Constitution provides an ironclad right to collectively bargain.

Does the university have any right to stop the formation of a union?

No. Our right to collectively bargain is guaranteed by the Missouri Constitution. The University is currently refusing to recognize CGW because it claims that, as our “primary relationship” to the University is as students, we do not have the right to organize as employees. Their reasoning insists on reading words into the Missouri Constitution that do not exist: Article 1, Section 29 states “employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” It does not say, “employees, except for student employees…” The Constitution clearly presents this as a right for all employees. We have brought a lawsuit against the Curators of the University of Missouri to press for our constitutional right to organize. The lawsuit was heard by Judge Jeff Harris on April 20th, 2018. A decision is still pending.

Will a union impact my relationship with my advisor?

This is a common talking point used by anti-union university administrators. However, an extensive study by Cornell’s ILR School found that evidence suggests that there is no difference in student-advisor relationships between union and non-union Universities, and that graduate employees at unionized universities report “higher levels of personal and professional support.”

Can my advisor retaliate against me for participating in union activity?

No. Retaliation is expressly prohibited by law. Advisors or supervisors of any sort cannot attempt to dissuade you from joining the union, and they are expressly prohibited from asking how you will vote in a union election or whether you are involved in or a member of the union. If you are aware that your supervisor is opposed to unionization, you are legally entitled to withhold your position on the question.

I am an international student. Will participating in union activities harm my visa status or university standing?

No. International students have the same constitutional and labor rights as domestic students, and in fact, being part of CGW gives you greater protections in the event that you are discriminated against.

Will participating in union activities harm my career?

No. Unions are common in higher education and are organized at over forty top-tier public research universities, and hiring committees do not ask about union activities. Many public universities similar to MU, such as the University of Iowa, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Kansas, have graduate employee unions, and no harm has been done to their graduates’ career prospects.

Does forming a union mean we will go on strike?

No. Walkouts, as with any other large-scale action, cannot be undertaken without a vote of the membership. Nothing means more to our union than a democratic process, especially in high-stakes situations like strikes. Further, public sector employees are legally prohibited from striking in the state of Missouri.

What about the Graduate Professional Council? Why do we need another organization to represent graduate workers?

GPC does great work for graduate and professional students, but GPC’s mandate is much broader than ours: they cover all graduate students, not just graduate workers. As a result, their main focus is on academic issues – the things that affect us as students – while our focus is on employment. (Plus, GPC can’t engage in collective bargaining.) GPC has passed several resolutions in support of CGW and graduate workers’ right to organize as employees under the Missouri Constitution.

Updated April 22nd, 2018.

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