UGW Members Speak Out

UNM Needs to Improve Graduate Worker, Faculty Labor Conditions

Emma Mincks, English Teaching Assistant / March 4th, 2021

UNM admin and regents need to do better. After 2 years with the faculty union, they have yet to bargain a fair contract, and keep stalling recognition for the graduate union. This anti-labor stance is alarming. UNM says that we are students, not workers. However, we teach courses that tenured faculty teach at many institutions, often the same course-load per semester but with more students per class. While the school may say it saves money on these choices in the short term, we lose irreplaceable faculty and grad workers every year because of working conditions. The rate of faculty attrition in the midst of hiring freezes only adds more labor for grad workers, simultaneously undermining our studies. Many graduates have been forced to change research paths multiple times due to faculty exits.

Faculty and graduate student struggles are linked, and both negatively affect undergraduate success. Classroom dynamics falter when TA’s teach 50+ students a semester while attempting to finish coursework, undercutting our future careers. We are presented with the unethical choice between better pedagogy and helping students flourish in their first semesters, or getting published, applying for more humane funding, meeting coursework requirements, conferencing, and advancing our careers in fields increasingly less likely to hire us without those time consuming publications. Some advise to “prioritize research over teaching,” but this becomes an ethical dilemma as 50+ students rely on your class for basic writing and professional skills. 

UNM’s worker exploitation is notoriously problematic; years before we had a union, two people at two different conferences said “yikes, I’m sorry” when they heard I was from UNM. At our peer institutions, students take course releases during important times in their schooling, perform research, and teach 1 course a semester at most. I don’t see “students” when I look around at all of my professionalized colleagues. I see “instructors” taking practicums in order to be better teachers and collaborating to better support their students. I see many becoming sick and sleep deprived trying to fit countless hours of reading, grading, emailing, class prep, departmental service, and coursework into each week with many taking on extra editing, grading, and research jobs to supplement small stipends. I hear frequently from positions of authority that grad workers are overworked, and yet many are unable or unwilling to lift the load off our shoulders. 

Our stipends are not enough to sustain our role as students. The summers are generally filled with anxiety and multiple side gigs instead of time for catching up on research, publication, and coursework. I am sharing this because I love UNM. It is tragic to see our school tarnishing its reputation while denying workers conditions that would actually improve the culture, notoriety, and overall student outcomes for graduate and undergraduate students. It is condescending and inaccurate for UNM to pretend that we are “only” or even “primarily” students, especially when we do much of the teaching and research work at UNM. It is frustrating to see them stall their bargaining with faculty when we have so many leaving the school. I love my students and know that they deserve better learning conditions. Regents and Admin need to recognize workers whose crucial contributions make this university run. Be fair-minded as faculty and grad workers negotiate for change. Without faculty, adjunct, staff, and grad worker labor, admin wouldn’t have their paychecks. 

Amidst a Global Pandemic, UNM Graduate Workers are Denied Adequate Health Insurance Coverage

Alana Bock, February 23rd, 2021 

Graduate Workers at the University of New Mexico are unionizing, and for good reason. Reasons to unionize include graduate workers’ making poverty wages, lack of affordable childcare for graduate student parents, overwork, and lack of security for international students. All of these issues are concerning, but particularly alarming is UNM’s poor health insurance plan (during a global pandemic!) for the graduate workers who quite literally allow the university to run. 

Graduate workers at UNM are not even offered the bare minimum for health insurance. Dental and vision care, for example, are not included. As a graduate worker myself, I have had to pay out of pocket for vision and dental care over the last four years because the health insurance UNM provides me as an employee does not cover either one. This is especially hard on graduate workers’ wallets because we are not paid a living wage by UNM. For example, I work a .75 FTE (30 hrs/wk) and I still forgo medical care on a regular basis, very recently skipping an eye exam and getting a new pair of glasses (my current pair are 3 years old) in order to afford seeing a dentist after developing a small cavity (this was my first dental visit in 4.5 years!). This is an extremely normal experience for graduate workers. There are many graduate students ignoring dental pain, letting their teeth fall out, and experiencing severe headaches while teaching online courses during the pandemic because their glasses prescriptions are several years old. 

As it is well known, many illnesses and medical emergencies can be prevented with regular visits to appropriate doctors. For example, orthodontist Dr. Allena Willis Kennerly has stated that more than 800,000 annual ER visits arise from preventable dental problems. While UNM faculty get options for both vision and dental insurance, graduate workers do not receive any options and are often left to wait until they are in excruciating pain before seeking medical care. To add insult to injury (quite literally), the insurance plan offered to graduate workers by UNM provides only 20% coinsurance for ER and urgent care visits whereas UNM faculty have fixed copays. This makes little sense, especially when we consider that graduate workers make a fraction of what faculty make in a year. And yet, many graduate workers are the instructor of record for the courses they teach at UNM, courses that cost undergraduate students the same amount in tuition hours as ones taught by UNM faculty. So not only are we being overworked and underpaid, but we are being left to pay out of our small pockets for expensive emergency procedures after forgoing care and ignoring long-term pain because the university seems to think that we don’t need or deserve preventative medical care.

Graduate workers at UNM are letting their eyesight, teeth, and bodies deteriorate all while they teach courses, grade papers, hold office hours, conduct research, direct labs, and more. We are the life-blood of UNM and yet UNM is trying to obstruct our union rights and stall our path to negotiating a contract and securing better health benefits for all of the valuable workers who make this university run. Taking care of our health and our bodies should not be putting us graduate workers in debt. If UNM says we are valuable to the institution, then why don’t they treat us like we are valuable? The university works because graduate students work. It is time we are compensated adequately for our labor!

Alana J. Bock is a doctoral candidate in the American Studies department at the University of New Mexico, an instructor of an undergraduate course, a graduate assistant for the Feminist Research Institute at UNM, and an organizer with the United Graduate Workers of UNM union.

UNM Graduate Workers Do Not Earn Enough to Live in Albuquerque

Katie Gutierrez, February 16th, 2021 

recent post in an online forum asked for tips on how to live on a very low graduate program stipend. “I need to figure out a really strict budget, but that’s hard when rent will take everything I have.” Unfortunately, this is a common problem for those getting their masters and doctorates. Graduate workers like myself perform a variety of duties for their institutions including research, community outreach, writing, lecturing, grading, mentoring, and work with university centers outside their departments. 

The University of New Mexico, the state’s flagship university, estimates that the cost of living for a single graduate student in Albuquerque is around $22,000 per year. Yet the university pays its graduate workers a minimum stipend of about $14,000 per year. I am paid around $3500 per semester to teach an undergraduate course about social justice in economics, and the irony in this is not lost on me. Despite the fact that my position is billed as 10 hours per week, I spend many more as I have to prepare lectures, grade, hold office hours, and create assignments and exams—in addition to my dissertation work. Most of my colleagues use a combination of loans and federal assistance programs like food stamps to get by. This is an even more severe problem for international graduate workers, whose U.S. visas limit how much and where they can work, and graduate workers with dependents.

A UNM spokesperson said to the Albuquerque Journal “…post-master teacher assistants don’t have to pay tuition, which makes total compensation the equivalent of $30,000 per year.” But tuition waivers do not pay the rent. Officially, UNM admits that they do not count waivers as a form of pay: “The University of New Mexico considers this tuition waiver as a scholarship and not as payment for services rendered.” Claiming that tuition waivers count as compensation is an accounting trick that means nothing to the graduate students whose labor helps the university fulfill its mission.

 These low wages not only affect current graduate workers, but also future ones. Prospective graduate students from low-income backgrounds who are interested in researching topics that will advance the human condition have to make a choice between living in poverty for 4-6 years or not attending. By continuing to pay wages below the poverty line, UNM is sending the message that low-income graduate and other historically disadvantaged students do not belong in academia, as well as diminishing the quality of teaching and research that we provide.

This is why we have formed a union made up of a supermajority of graduate workers. However, despite all the work we do for UNM, the university is claiming that we are not employees and therefore do not have a legal right to unionize. Not only is this adding insult to injury, but the university is willing to fight a costly legal battle to disenfranchise us instead of simply paying us a living wage. 

I love UNM—I am actually a fourth generation Lobo. But it feels like the powers that be at UNM do not love me back. If they did, surely they would pay me enough to live.

Katherine Gutierrez is a doctoral candidate in the UNM Department of Economics, a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course, and an organizer with the United Graduate Workers of UNM union.