Earlier this week, New Mexico’s state labor board voted to certify UE Local 1498 as the union for over 900 graduate employees at New Mexico State University. The vote followed a March 17 “card count” conducted by the board that found that the majority of graduate employees at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces had signed union cards, paving the way for UE Local 1498 to be certified as the official bargaining agent for the 939 graduate workers at NMSU.
“I am stoked that the labor board has finally recognized the facts: graduate workers are employees, and we have the right to collectively bargain for better wages and working conditions,” said Dan Vargo, a graduate worker in the the department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Ecology. “Now that the labor board has certified our union, we’re looking forward to starting the work of negotiating a contract for fair pay, tuition remittance, and health insurance to address the inexcusable conditions that graduate workers now face. We’re hopeful that NMSU will work with us to address these issues.”
Unlike graduate employees at the vast majority of peer institutions, NMSU graduate workers are forced to “pay to work,” paying over $6,000 a year in tuition and fees. After paying tuition and fees, the average NMSU graduate worker earns an annual stipend of just $12,123 — a number far below the federal poverty line of $13,590 for a single adult with no dependents. Additionally, NMSU graduate workers are not offered health insurance beyond the costly minimum coverage legally required for international employees, leaving workers to make difficult choices between basic necessities. Graduate workers at NMSU filed for union recognition with clear majority support in May of 2021 but certification was delayed for almost a year because NMSU administrators chose conflict over dialogue–repeatedly objecting and delaying the case.
“Our goals are aligned with the stated goals of the NMSU administration — we also want to strengthen our community and make this university a place where important academic advancements happen,” said Joshua Tise, a graduate worker in the English department. “But it’s not possible for graduate workers to empower NMSU when we’re left struggling to have our own material needs met. We hope that the NMSU administration will work hand-in-hand with us to ensure graduate workers are treated with dignity and, together, we can continue to help NMSU live up to its full and incredible potential.”
Rally for Tuition Remission
In March, days before the card count, UE members rallied and delivered a petition to the NMSU Board of Regents demanding tuition remission for all graduate workers.
Unlike at most public universities, graduate employees at NMSU are not guaranteed tuition remission and the vast majority must pay about $6,300 annually in tuition. After subtracting the cost of tuition and fees, the average salary for a graduate worker is just $11,851 annually, over $1,000 below the federal poverty line for a single adult, and far worse for graduate workers with children and families.
“This is a highly exploitative situation, and it’s holding NMSU back from reaching our full potential as a research university,” said grad worker and Local 1498 leader Paramveer Singh. “As an international student, it takes us about two to three years to save enough money to buy a plane ticket to visit our family back home. Now is the time for real action.”
Singh was one of several UE leaders who addressed the March 14 NMSU Board of Regents meeting. Matthew Varakian declared that, “it’s clear that tuition coverage is becoming the most basic level of support that a university should offer” to its graduate workers.
The Local 1498 members received support from Samantha Cooney of Local 1466, which represents graduate workers at the University of New Mexico. “Millions of dollars are brought into this institution, because graduate workers work here,” Cooney told the regents. “If you want to do well in research, pay your researchers better and give them tuition remission so that they are able to stay at this university and attain the level of research that you want to see.”
A number of NMSU faculty also spoke in support of the graduate workers’ efforts to win tuition remission and union representation. Prior to the meeting, Local 1498 held a rally with grad workers and supporters from faculty, undergraduates, alumni and the Las Cruces community, and delivered over 1,100 signatures on a petition demanding tuition remission.
Grad workers at NMSU have been organizing with UE since the spring of 2020. By May of 2021, NMSU graduate workers had successfully signed up a clear majority of their fellow workers and filed with the state for recognition but, like at the University of New Mexico, the NMSU administration chose to use legal appeals to delay recognition.