University of Missouri graduate assistants are employees as defined by the Missouri Constitution and entitled to collectively bargain over pay and working conditions but the Coalition of Graduate Workers didn’t properly distinguish between teaching and non-teaching roles and hasn’t qualified as the union for the assistants, a Missouri court ruled Tuesday.
The Western District Court of Appeals opinion issued Tuesday morning is a partial win for both sides in the case. It upheld the basic argument of the graduate assistants – that they are employees of the university – but granted MU’s argument that it is not bound by an April 2016 election that it did not take part in.
The ruling upheld parts of a ruling issued by Circuit Judge Jeff Harris in June 2018 while overturning his order that the university recognize the coalition as the bargaining agent for graduate assistants.
In the unanimous opinion of the three-judge panel, written by Judge Victor Howard, the court rejected the university’s argument that graduate assistants are primarily students and the work they do is part of their academic training.
The ruling is the latest in a lawsuit that began in 2016 after the university failed to recognize the results of an election in which 84 percent of graduate assistants who cast ballots chose the coalition to represent them in collective bargaining. The case has its roots in graduate assistants’ resistance to an August 2015 decision, later rescinded, that the university would no longer pay their health insurance premiums.
The university refused to take part in the election and the coalition enlisted the League of Women Voters to help conduct the vote.
The university treats graduate assistants like employees in many ways, Howard wrote. They work at the direction of faculty and staff supervisors, receive pay that is taxable, are subject to MU rules governing policies and practices and are eligible for workers' compensation if injured, he wrote.
The court noted that Columbia University students have been recognized as employees with rights to organize and bargain collectively by the National Labor Relations Board while also noting that decision is not binding on state courts.
“The most recent NLRB decision, Columbia University, rejects the university’s argument that graduate workers are different than other workers for purposes of collective bargaining because of their academic relationship with the university,” Howard wrote. “More importantly, the University’s argument ignores the plain and ordinary meaning of ‘employee’ in (the Missouri Constitution. The constitution) does not exclude employees who also happen to be students.”
The coalition is not the bargaining unit of the graduate assistants because they should have been split into two groups – those who teach and those who do not, Howard wrote.
Non-teaching employees must follow the state’s Public Sector Labor Law, which specifies the actions of the public employer in collective bargaining, and the rules of the state Board of Mediation, which sets standards for elections on union representation.
The public sector labor law excludes police officers and teachers from the rules set for other public employees but does not deny them union representation, Howard wrote. Instead, their selection of a union is made under procedures either negotiated with the employer or, if the employer refuses, under procedures the employees establish.
“The stipulated facts also show that graduate workers voted as one group in the April 2016 election held by CGW,” Howard wrote. “The stipulated facts do not, however, show that the election was held in accordance with the Missouri public sector labor law, which governed the non-teachers in the group.”
The case was returned to Harris for further proceedings to determine the future course of the union’s efforts to represent the graduate employees.
Check back later for more updates on this developing story.