COLUMBIA, Mo. - UPDATE 6/22 11:27 A.M.: UM System President Mun Choi said during a press conference Friday that the university plans to appeal the judge's decision on MU graduate workers. "We do not agree that graduate students are employees," said Choi.
ORIGINAL STORY: A Boone County judge ruled Thursday that graduate workers at the University of Missouri are employees, and therefore are allowing them to unionize and bargain with the school.
The decision is a major victory for the students, who organized in 2015, in the wake of losing, then regaining, health benefits from the school. The Coalition of Graduate Workers sued the Board of Curators in 2016, and argued their case in April.
Judge Jeff Harris wrote that the Missouri Constitution does not specify which kinds of employees, either public or private, have the right to organize and negotiate with employers. Graduate workers are employees, he said, since they get paid by the school for work they do.
"It is relatively easy to conclude that the graduate workers are 'employees' under the plain and ordinary meaning of the word," Harris wrote. "They are employed by another for wages. They perform work for the university, and the university pays them for that work. Simply put, they have jobs that pay wages. They are 'employees.'"
Michael Vierling, an MU biology graduate student and CGW co-chair, told ABC 17 News the decision validated the position members have held for several years.
"We are paid wages for our work as teachers, as research assistants and as general teaching aides," Vierling said. "We do a lot of work for the university, and we just feel that we're starting to get recognized for the work that we do."
In April 2016, graduate students voted 84 percent in favor of unionization. CGW tried twice to get the university's approval for the election, but the school turned it down. Administrators argued that graduate workers were students first and not employees.
Missouri voters in 1945 amended the state constitution to allow workers to collectively bargain with their employers. Attorneys for the university said voters then would not consider graduate students as employees, but instead thought the amendment protected private interests. Harris called the argument "unpersuasive."
"The switchboard operators and milkmen of 1945 may not have foreseen a future in which graduate workers would teach computer engineering for $20,000 a year, but they would certainly have understood the basic concept of work in exchange for wages," Harris said. "The means of employment have changed since 1945, but the basics of employment relationship have not."
MU spokesman Christian Basi said the school would review the decision before deciding what to do next.
"We still need to go through the ruling in detail and determine the specifics and go through it with a fine-tooth comb, and then we'll make any decision following that," Basi told ABC 17 News.
The school has 30 days to appeal the decision.