MSU graduate employees join MEA-MFT
Welcome to the nearly 600 graduate assistant employees at MSU-Bozeman, who have voted by a whopping margin to form a union and join MEA-MFT!
The vote was counted Monday, April 9, 2012.
Congratulations to these graduate assistants and to MEA-MFT organizers Morgan Smith and Melissa Case, who have been working with the employees for two years to help them through the organizing process.
MEA-MFT is proud and happy to have these employees as part of our family!
See television news story.
See Bozeman Chronicle article below, with comments from MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver and grade students:
Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2012 12:15 am
MSU graduate students vote to unionize
GAIL SCHONTZLER, Bozeman Daily Chronicle Staff Writer
Graduate students at Montana State University have won a historic election to organize an employee union, the first of its kind in the state.
After more than two years of organizing by the Graduate Employee Organization and MEA-MFT, graduate students voted overwhelmingly Monday in favor of forming a union.
One student reported the unofficial tally as 195 to 67. The Montana Department of Labor official in charge of the election was traveling and could not be reached to confirm the figures.
MSU opposed the union, arguing that graduate assistants, who teach and do research for professors, cannot legally form a union to bargain with the university because they are “primarily students and not employees.”
Ballots were sent out to 570 graduate students and the vote was overwhelmingly in favor, Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT, said Tuesday. MEA-MFT, the state’s largest union, represents teachers, professors and other government employees.
“We’re very pleased with our success,” Feaver said. The vote means, he said, that the organization will go forward to the next phase — signing up members, writing a constitution, choosing officers and “working with the university on an initial contract.”
Leslie Taylor, MSU’s counsel, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Taylor wrote in a brief last fall to the Montana Board of Personnel Appeals contending that its hearing officer had exceeded his authority, acted as an advocate for the students and incorrectly recommended the board rule that graduate assistants are public employees.
Graduate teaching assistants and research assistants are paid stipends, not wages, Taylor wrote. They sign an agreement that explicitly states they aren’t employees, she added. They are, she wrote, “first and foremost students primarily engaged in an education program and in pursuit of a graduate degree.”
MSU may appeal in court, but, Feaver said, “We believe we will prevail.”
Zach Adam, a graduate student in earth science and member of the union’s informal steering committee, said key issues for graduate students are obtaining health insurance, having a better way to resolve conflicts with faculty advisers and, especially for graduate students with families, being paid “a living wage.”
“Working conditions vary significantly from department to department,” Adam said. Some departments cover their grad students’ health insurance and others do not, he said. Some pay stipends of $1,100 a month, some pay twice that, and some pay nothing, he said. Graduate students can be expected to do 55 to 60 hours of work a week, he said, adding, “It’s not fair.”
“We’re just really excited by this success,” said Liz Freedman, a graduate student in paleontology. “It’s great. We’ve been wanting this a long time.”
Freedman said she hopes MSU now will create more consistency in how graduate assistants are treated from department to department.
“We want a level playing field,” she said, and to “raise the people at the bottom.”
Dave Firmage, a master’s degree student in earth science, said he was excited about the union vote. Firmage said grad students feel a little frustrated when they look at what other state universities offer, including health insurance. MSU’s stipends can be half of what they are elsewhere, he said.
“Personally I really, really, really don’t see this as antagonistic to the university,” Firmage said. “To wrap us into the health plan makes sense.”
If anything, the union should strengthen MSU’s “ability to continue to attract high-quality graduate students,” he said.
Firmage said the unionization effort started before he arrived at MSU in the spring of 2010. He heard that what sparked it was that a few graduate students went to ask about getting health coverage, and a dean told them, “’You’d have to unionize to get that.’”
Students credited Morgan Smith and Melissa Case, MEA-MFT organizers, with providing important leadership.
Asked whether MEA-MFT would now seek to organize graduate students at the University of Montana, Feaver laughed and said, “You know, there’s a heck of a lot of organizing to be done in this country.”