KANSAS CITY — A Boone County judge went beyond his authority when he ruled graduate workers were employees and ordered the University of Missouri to recognize and bargain with their union, MU’s attorney said during oral arguments Tuesday in the Western District Missouri Court of Appeals.
The university appealed a ruling by Boone County Circuit Judge Jeff Harris last June finding the Coalition of Graduate Workers were employees and directed the university to recognize them and bargain with them. Immediately upon the judge’s ruling, MU System President Mun Choi announced the university would appeal. The appeal was filed in November, restating many of the arguments rejected by Harris.
James Layton, the university’s contract attorney, said a court can order bargaining, but it can’t order the UM System Board of Curators to develop a framework for a union election and bargaining.
"There is that limitation on judicial reach which is in the separation of powers," Layton said.
Loretta Haggard, attorney representing the Coalition of Graduate Workers, said that and other arguments presented by the university go beyond what was addressed in the trial court.
The appeals court hearing is one of the closing chapters in a university story that began in the fall of 2015. The coalition emerged from discontent among graduate assistants over the handling of their health insurance as the 2015-16 school year began. The university informed assistants the day before classes were to begin that their insurance, offered as an individual plan with the university paying the premium, would be eliminated and replaced with a cash amount intended to subsidize the purchase of insurance.
After protests, the university reversed the decision but graduate assistants continued to organize, first forming a group called the Forum on Graduate Rights. In response, the university tried to quiet the discontent by increasing the minimum stipends and promising to protect health insurance.
The union was formed as an affiliate of the Missouri National Education Association and sought recognition. When the university refused, the organization conducted the election, in which 84 percent of those voting cast ballots in favor of the union.
Layton said there was no basis on which to verify who voted in the graduate workers’ election, or if it were meant to achieve a majority of all graduate workers or a majority of those who voted.
"The Circuit Court’s decision is based purely on a set of stipulated facts," Layton said.
Layton said graduate workers can be teachers, who would be represented by a public union, or non-teachers, who would not be represented by a public union.
"It seems problematic that we have a bunch of graduate workers doing different things," Presiding Judge Victor Howard said.
"It seems very unlikely that the university would have a single bargaining unit for both," Layton said.
In questioning Layton’s argument, Judge Gary Witt focused on when the university decided to raise issues in the courts.
"You all didn’t raise a complaint about the validity of the election until the very end of the process," Witt said.
In her arguments, Haggard sought to focus the court on issues that were directly before Harris and to ignore any new issues injected during the appeal. Haggard said there was little in the university’s filed briefs or Layton’s oral argument of the main issue decided by Harris — that graduate workers are employees with the right to collectively bargain.
"For all relevant aspects, they are employees," Haggard said."They also are students."
She said Layton made points the university didn’t make to the trial court at all.
"That was never presented to the trial court and it would be inappropriate for the appeals court to rule on it," Haggard said of one issue.
"It just seems like going forward, it could be really problematic," Howard said, referring to the teachers and non-teachers in the union.
That could become an issue in the future because of a new state law — currently stayed by an injunction — placing more requirements on public employee unions, but it was not an issue in the trial court ruling, she said.
Haggard said that may be the situation because of the new law that places more requirements on public unions, but that was not at issue in the trial court ruling.
Haggard also addressed if approval was meant to be a majority of graduate workers, or a majority of those who voted.
"That is a huge issues that ought not to be decided by this court" because it wasn’t addressed in trial court, Haggard said. "The whole dispute below is whether they have a right to collectively bargain."
Layton asked in rebuttal what effect the circuits court remedy had for "the vast majority of graduate workers who did not vote."
"How do we as the Court of Appeals get there, though?" Howard responded.
The definition of an employee as someone who works for pay isn’t adequate, Layton said.
"They may be paid, but that does not mean they’re working for wages," Layton said. "They’re working for a graduate degree."
Layton said after the hearing that the court typically issues rulings within two or three months.