The state Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected the University of Missouri’s last appeal to prevent graduate assistants from unionizing.
In the minutes of the court, issued along with opinions in several cases, the court stated it had denied the university’s application to transfer the case from the Western District Court of Appeals, which in late July ruled that graduate assistants are employees of the university with the right to organize a union and seek recognition of a union.
“It sounds like we won,” said Michael Vierling, co-chair of the Coalition of Graduate Workers, formed late in 2015. “It sounds like we got what we needed. That is great news.”
No opinion accompanied the decision and how the seven members of the court voted is not stated in the two-sentence entry in the court minutes.
MU graduate assistants are employees as defined by the Missouri Constitution and entitled to collectively bargain over pay and working conditions, the appeals court ruled in July. The ruling upheld a portion of a decision issued by Circuit Judge Jeff Harris in June 2018.
There have been no discussions between the university and the union on how to proceed if the Supreme Court rejected the latest appeal, Vierling said.
“No, we haven’t been able to get a seating with them,” Vierling said. “We were trying to wait, mostly until this decision was issued. And it has always been their position that they need to get clarification on the law and they have gotten clarification on the law over and over again.”
The July appeals court decision did not uphold the portion of Harris’ decision directing the university to recognize an April 2016 election where 84 percent of the graduate assistants voting supported selecting the coalition as their union.
The appeals court stated that Missouri law requires separate steps for union recognition for teachers and public safety workers than for other public employees. There are graduate assistants who teach and there are assistants who work in libraries and research labs.
The appeals court did not invalidate the election, but sent the case back to Harris for more arguments to determine if the election should be upheld.
“We are prepared to hold another election at this point,” Vierling said. “But they should not get the benefit of not being involved in the election and then post-facto try to dictate what is going to happen."
The university offered little reaction to the ruling, other than a statement from spokesman Christian Basi noting that there are "further proceedings" pending in Harris' court.
The ruling is the latest in a lawsuit that began in 2016 after the university failed to recognize the results of that election. 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 episode convinced many graduate 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 lawsuit is detracting from the assistants and the university working together, Vierling said.
“I believe the graduate workers have a lot they can do to increase the productivity on campus and just the general atmosphere,” he said.