COLUMBIA — The Forum on Graduate Rights and the Coalition of Graduate Workers are still working to have their demands met by MU administrators. Between August, when the forum was established, and mid-December, many events have taken place to improve graduate rights at the university. The push has continued in the spring with efforts to unionize.

Here's a list of events so far:

Graduate student employees with assistantships, regardless of their assistantship status, received full tuition waivers. The change would affect graduate student employees with quarter-time assistantships — or who work for the university for about 10 hours per week — beginning in the fall of 2016.

This was due to an IRS policy interpretation change that prevented the university from providing graduate student employees with subsidies to purchase “individual-market plans."

Students received this information in an email from MU Associate Vice Chancellor Leona Rubin about 11 a.m. The announcement was a surprise to graduate student employees.

Graduate students were no longer covered by the university’s insurance plan unless they paid for the university’s insurance in full, which was $1,240 for graduate student employees with half-time assistantships and $620 for quarter-time assistantships.

The grassroots movement was formed in response to the withdrawal of health care subsidies but is promoting graduate student rights generally at MU.

The demands included: increased stipends; full tuition waivers for graduate student employees, regardless of their assistantship type; permanent reinstatement of health insurance subsidies; affordable, on-campus child care facilities; relief for international students, who had higher insurance costs; affordable housing and the elimination of auxiliary fees from colleges and departments.

“Based on recent conversations with external experts and leadership, along with consultation with peer institutions, compliance experts and internal constituents, MU will defer implementation of its decision regarding graduate student health insurance. As a result, the university will pay for health insurance for eligible graduate students,” a letter from administrators stated.

The new list of demands included revisions, background and context. 

Hundreds of students, faculty and staff supporters turned up at the rally. Rally leaders chanted “M-I-Z, shame on you,” and guided the crowd from the MU Columns on Francis Quadrangle to the amphitheater at Traditions Plaza.

The forum declared Wednesdays as a days to celebrate the contributions of graduate student employees, and support is shown by wearing red. 

Associate Vice Chancellor for Graduate Studies Leona Rubin, then MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin and Provost Garnett Stokes attended the faculty council meeting to answer questions about graduate health insurance but also apologized for their lack of communication on the decision to withdraw health insurance subsidies. 

Legally, the forum could not be both a university group and unionize. In a Facebook post, a forum steering committee member posed the question. “Since the first meeting of FGR on August 17th … many of our members have supported unionization as a long-term goal,” the post said.

An exasperated group of graduate student employees stood in a line to tell administrators — including Associate Vice Chancellor for Graduate Studies Leona Rubin, who had been answering most of the comments and questions — about their struggles as graduate student employees at MU. 

Loftin said he was waiting on a formal report from the task force to make a detailed, official announcement, but he gave his personal guarantee that graduate student employee health insurance was secure. 

“Implementing changes now has created too much uncertainty regarding recruitment of graduate students for fall 2016,” Associate Vice Chancellor for Graduate Studies Leona Rubin said in a statement.

Anahita Zare, outreach chair for the Forum on Graduate Rights, called it “a step in the right direction and proof that by standing together, we can produce results.” 

“ … Addressing systemic inequities at our campus, such as racism, homophobia, misogyny, and labor exploitation, will require that graduate students continue to organize for collective action. We cannot wait for solutions to come from administration; we must mobilize to enact them,” the forum’s statement said.

The statement also said the forum stood in solidarity with #ConcernedStudent1950. 

The crowd cheered at the rally, both in response to the mention of former UM System President Tim Wolfe and MU Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin’s resignations and in solidarity with social justice regarding race relations on campus. 

The task force submitted the report to Interim MU Chancellor Hank Foley on Nov. 16, before its deadline. The Forum on Graduate Rights sent a letter to the chancellor before the report was released, asking for it to be made public as per the forum's original demand. The report included three recommendations for the university to implement to continue providing health insurance to graduate student employees at the university. 

Under this plan, which is possibly in violation of an Affordable Care Act interpretation, MU grants graduate student employees all or partial subsidies for the cost of health insurance. Foley said that each of the three proposals issued to him in November by the Task Force on Graduate Student Health Insurance presented difficulties.

The pay raise plan, which take place over a two year period beginning on July 1, was offered in response to demands made in August by graduate student employees. Foley said the MU police force will also be expanding with a 25 percent increase in officers and a 50 percent increase in dispatchers over the next three years.

The Coalition of Graduate Workers held a vote for graduate student workers to decide whether the group could officially represent MU graduate students in collective bargaining as an affiliated union through the Missouri National Education Association. If a simple majority voted "yes," and if the university decides to recognize the outcome of the vote, the coalition will be able to bargain on behalf of graduate workers at the university.

The vote garnered some opposition from university administration including MU Interim Chancellor Hank Foley and UM System Interim President Mike Middleton, who questioned the legality of unionization and the vote. 

"It's really unfortunate that our graduate students feel the need to form a union," Middleton said at an April UM System Board of Curators meeting. "I think this is all part of the turmoil that we experienced back in November, with students feeling as if their concerns were not being accurately addressed by the administration."

"The problem is that in the state of Missouri it's not clear that students have a right to collectively bargain," he said.

April 19: Graduate student workers vote to unionize

About 84 percent of the 795 graduate student workers who voted were in favor of allowing the Coalition of Graduate Workers to represent them in collective bargaining. 

The university still had not recognized the union. 

May 12: Graduate students sue MU in search of union recognition.

A lawsuit filed in the 13th District Circuit Court for Boone County asked for a ruling directing the UM System curators to acknowledge graduate student assistants as employees and collectively bargain with them or organize an MU-sanctioned election for graduate students to vote whether to unionize.

According to Article 1 of the Missouri Constitution's Bill of Rights, employees have a right to organize and bargain collectively with their employer, but MU has repeatedly stated that graduate workers are not employees.

May 12: Emails show indecision and a lack of communication leading up to the decision to withdraw graduate student health subsidies. 

Emails obtained through an open records request shed some light on the days leading up to the announcement that the health insurance subsidies would end. While faculty and graduate students were in the dark, Leona Rubin, the vice chancellor for graduate studies, was struggling to get opinions and direction from Foley and Provost Garnett Stokes.

In interviews with the Missourian, faculty members and MU's previous Graduate School dean blamed the fiasco on Loftin's structural changes to graduate studies administration and faulted university leaders for not pushing back on controversial legal advice from an outside law firm.

August 24: Labor board ruling could help graduate worker unionization efforts. 

The National Labor Relations board ruled that graduate student assistants at private universities should be seen as employees and allowed to collectively bargain. Although the decision applies to private universities, it might boost unionization efforts at MU and other public institutions.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

Payton Liming and Katie Kull contributed to this report. 

  • Education reporting team, fall 2015 Studying print and digital journalism Reach me at eev728@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5720

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