Most Influential Students: Eric Scott and Connor Lewis
The co-chairmen of the Coalition of Graduate Workers have led the campuswide drive to unionize graduate student workers.
May. 03, 2016
Graduate students Eric Scott and Connor Lewis met at the first meeting of the Forum on Graduate Rights, just days after graduate workers were informed 13 hours before their health coverage period ended that it would not be renewed.
Now, Scott says he’s probably spent more time with Lewis than any other person this year. That time has been dedicated to organizing an effective way for graduate student workers to participate in conversations with administration about stipends, insurance and other key aspects of their working experience.
The two were elected co-chairmen of the Coalition of Graduate Workers in August. Once a branch of FGR, CGW is now its own organization set on becoming graduate workers’ collective bargaining agent.
“We hope that CGW goes down as being one of the most influential moments in the history of graduate education at the University of Missouri,” Scott said. “It’s not about any particular individual, it’s about everyone in this community coming together and standing up for themselves.”
Lewis described their working style as “fluid,” with tasks breaking up naturally based on which chairman’s skills best cater to them.
“We have not just a great working relationship, but a great friendship that I think has made it really easy for us to work together,” Lewis said.
Scott, who helped organize the first FGR meeting, said they didn’t go into it with plans to unionize — the idea came from the crowd. Beginning in early September, FGR and CGW collected union election cards, gauging how many in this crowd really wanted to move forward. They reached a plurality by the end of the fall semester.
In mid-April, CGW held an election in which 84 percent of graduate workers who voted favored unionization. Lewis believes the health insurance scare united graduate workers across departments and gave them a sense of common purpose they didn’t have before.
“There wasn’t really a sense of that much community outside of our own departments, and I think that’s something that really changed in August,” Lewis said. “I think it’s something that changed for the better.”
Throughout the year, CGW has met with UM System and MU administration to discuss their plans and potential solutions to graduate workers’ concerns. However, administrators have questioned whether graduate workers are employees with the right to unionize because the Missouri Constitution does not say definitively either way.
Interim Chancellor Hank Foley has said graduate workers are not employees and that MU will not recognize the election’s results. In an interview with the Columbia Daily Tribune, he called the election a “mock election” and said he wanted to find other ways to work with graduate students than a union.
Still, Scott and Lewis remain hopeful that the university and UM System will recognize the results of the election and begin mending its relationship with graduate workers. Otherwise, they’re prepared to file a suit against the UM System and have the courts clarify graduate workers’ employee status.
The two hope to leave CGW as a lasting organization that gives graduate workers a collective voice and chance to advocate for themselves.
Scott and Lewis plan to continue their involvement with the group until graduation, which both estimate will be in about two years.
“Long story short, if the union wants me, then the union has me for as long as they need,” Scott said.