The University of Missouri will try a direct appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court to block a court ruling that graduate assistants are employees who are entitled to join a union and force the university into collective bargaining.
The Western District Court of Appeals on Tuesday refused the university’s request for a rehearing on its July 30 decision that recognized the graduate assistants as employees. The court also refused to transfer the case to the Supreme Court, so the university will have its lawyers make a direct appeal of the unanimous appeals court decision, spokesman Christian Basi said Wednesday.
“We want to take this step of appealing that portion of the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court,” Basi said. “Once that been completed, then we will be making decisions based on what Supreme Court says.”
The coalition has no plans for further appeals because it won on the core issue of whether graduate assistants are employees, said Sally Barker, attorney for the coalition.
Barker also said she doubts the high court will take the case, in part because the appeals court panel was unanimous and the case doesn’t create new legal issues.
“I don’t see anything about this decision that would distinguish it,” she said.
The court of appeals ruled against the university on the issue of whether the graduate assistants are employees but ruled against the Coalition of Graduate Workers, the Missouri National Education Association-affiliated local union, on the issue of whether the university was obligated to recognize an April 2016 election.
The appeals court found that university treats graduate assistants like employees in many ways. 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, Judge Victor Howard wrote.
But the 2016 election was flawed, he wrote, because it combined assistants with teaching positions with those who do research or work in MU libraries. State law sets up different structures for recognizing unions for teachers and police officers than the procedures for recognizing other public sector unions.
The appeals court decision upheld part and overturned part of a decision by Circuit Judge Jeff Harris, who ordered the university recognize the assistants as employees and accept the results of the 2016 election. Harris ruled in June 2018 that the 2016 election was sufficient to determine the union, an affiliate of the Missouri National Education Association, should be their bargaining agent.
The union is ready to negotiate for the bargaining units and election procedures based the appeals court decision, said Michael Vierling, co-chair of the coalition. The decision to continue the appeals is disappointing, he said.
“Their game plan from the very beginning is kind of to ignore our existence,” Vierling said. “That is unfortunate because we could work together to save us time, save them time and save the taxpayers money.”
The legal dispute 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 quickly reversed the decision after protests from graduate students, but the episode convinced many leaders that they could not trust the promises made by administrators. In a further bid to quiet the discontent, then-interim Chancellor Hank Foley announced a two-step increase in the minimum stipends paid to graduate assistants, effective in 2016 and 2017. Along with health insurance and the stipend, graduate assistants also receive tuition waivers.
The graduate assistants do not intend to submit impossible demands to the university if the union gets to the negotiating table, Vierling said.
“We have always tried to approach it in the realistic sense to insure what we have now is what we keep,” he said.