The Coalition of Graduate Workers gathers at the MU columns

UM’s Board of Curators is asking the Missouri Supreme Court to intervene in its fight against graduate student workers’ demand to unionize.

The University of Missouri System is asking the state‘s Supreme Court to overturn a decision that said the university’s graduate student workers are employees and eligible to unionize.

The request came late Wednesday as lawyers for the system filed paperwork asking the Supreme Court to take the case, following three consecutive rulings against the university by lower state courts.

The university is asking the Missouri Supreme Court to reverse a unanimous ruling by the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District on July 30 that the graduate students are constitutionally considered employees, and thus are able to collectively bargain with the university. The only question the appeals judges left open: who can represent graduate students in the process. The appellate judges reversed a lower court ruling that made the Coalition of Graduate Workers the exclusive bargaining agent.

Graduate students have been battling for the opportunity to unionize for three years. The university has been fighting the effort by maintaining the stance that they are not employees. The Missouri Constitution grants employees collective bargaining rights.

In its request for transfer to the Supreme Court, the university argues that clarification is needed on whether the Missouri Constitution’s definition of “employees” includes workers whose primary purpose is “academic development,” as well as clearing up the relationship between federal and Missouri labor laws.

The filing to the Supreme Court comes after the appellate court refused to reconsider its unanimous decision in favor of the graduate students. On Aug. 14 the university filed for a rehearing in the Court of Appeals. The request was denied less than two weeks later.

The appeal to the state’s highest court represents the latest chapter in a lengthy battle. Graduate students at the UM system’s Columbia campus first began to push for unionization in fall 2015, after the university revoked research and teaching assistants’ health care subsidies.

The UM System Board of Curators refused to recognize an April 2016 election that gave the Coalition of Graduate Workers the right to represent the students in the bargaining process — the graduate workers sued.

In July 2018, the 13th Circuit Court ruled that graduate students are employees and that the coalition had exclusive bargaining rights. Boone County Circuit Judge Jeff Harris, in an opinion that would have expanded employee rights under the Missouri Constitution, stated that “the University, through its practices and policies, treats (graduate students) like employees.”

The university appealed the lower court decision to the Court of Appeals, referencing a 2004 National Labor Relations Board decision, which ruled that Brown University graduate assistants were not employees and stating that MU was in the same situation. But that 2004 decision was overruled in a 2016 National Labor Relations Board decision that graduate students at private universities are considered employees.

Private universities like Brown handle graduate student employee status through the National Labor Relations Board, while public universities such as MU determine graduate students’ rights through state law. In his July 30 opinion, Clay County Circuit Judge Victor Howard of the Missouri appellate court notes that while NLRB decisions and precedent are not legally binding for MU’s case, they could be “potentially persuasive.”

  • Galen Bacharier is a reporter and assistant city editor at the Missourian. He has reported on state government and higher education. Reach him at or on Twitter @galenbacharier.

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