Contract to be negotiated for grad student wages, benefits

Kevin McRae, associate commissioner of the Montana Office of Higher Education, has confirmed that his office will be negotiating a contract for wages and benefits with MSU’s graduate research and teaching assistants. The move comes after nearly two years of discussion between both parties.

According to McRae, in early 2011 the graduate assistants met with the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers (MEA-MFT) with interest in unionising. The MEA-MFT — the largest union organization representing public educators in Montana — works on behalf of educators and other public employees in order to form unions. The organization agreed to help and began the union formation process.

The MEA-MFT filed a petition with the state Department of Labor and Industry, which approves and creates unions. The petition required agreement from a minimum number of the graduate assistants, and the majority voted for the MEA-MFT to represent them in union negotiations.

The chief point of contention, however, was whether or not the graduate students should be considered public employees.

The Commissioner’s office first denied the graduate students’ attempts to unionize, stating that they were not public employees. MSU’s graduate students are the first known in Montana to try to unionize, though McRae said the issue has come up in other states.

The office oversees a total of 25 collective bargaining units, or unions, in the Montana University System. Those bargaining units have the ability to negotiate with their employers for wages and benefits.

At a hearing called by the office, the Department of Labor and Industry’s examiner concluded, under review, that the students should be considered public employees. The decision was then sent to review by a five-person board of personnel appeals, where the employee status was further upheld on a split vote.

Following the appeals board, the Commissioner’s office had the option of taking the case to a state court to get an official decision on the employee status of the graduate students. McRae said that rather than risking the possible escalation in court case decisions and appeals, the Commissioner’s office agreed to meet with the grad students to negotiate a contract for their benefits and wages. The office still maintains the students are not public employees, however.

McRae, who is already designated as the lead negotiator on behalf of the Montana University System, said, “First contracts can take a long time.” Both parties have to wait for the state congress to set a budget, so negotiations will not begin until May. The process may take up to two years.

Contract negotiation works on a cycle of two years, coinciding with the state legislative session. Each year, a new budget is set and new contract negotiations begin.