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Montana State graduate employees join MEA-MFT

Nearly 600 graduate employees at Montana State University-Bozeman have voted 195 to 67 to be represented by the Graduate Employees Organization as their collective bargaining agent. GEO is affiliated with the MEA-MFT.

The graduate employees unit, which includes graduate teaching and research assistants, has been working to get a voice at the university for two years. The battle was a tough one because the university maintained that the assistants were students, not employees.

GEO filed a unit recognition petition with the Montana Board of Personnel Appeals in December 2010. In January 2011, the university filed a counterpetition, claiming the assistants were not employees and their stipends were not wages. In July, the board ruled that the assistants were indeed employees. The university appealed again. Finally, the board allowed the election to go forward this month, and votes were counted April 9.

For the grad employees, the issues were both bread-and-butter and qualitative. They need health insurance, working conditions that are predictable and consistent across departments, and especially for those with families, a living wage.

Graduate assistants told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle of wide variations in compensation.

Zach Adam, a graduate student in earth science and member of the union's informal steering committee, said, "Working conditions vary significantly from department to department." 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. Graduate students can be expected to do 55 to 60 hours of work a week, he said, adding, "It's not fair."

A union, says Dave Firmage, a master's degree student in earth science, should strengthen MSU's "ability to continue to attract high-quality graduate students."

Firmage told the Chronicle that he heard what sparked the organizing campaign 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.'"

Game on!

It is not yet clear if the university will appeal the vote again. If it does, however, "we will prevail," says Eric Feaver, MEA-MFT president and an AFT vice president. [Barbara McKenna, MEA-MFT, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle] 

April 16, 2012