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University of Missouri at Columbia graduate employees are suing the university system’s Board of Curators for union recognition, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Graduate assistants voted last month 668-127 to form a union affiliated with the National Education Association. But Hank Foley, interim campus chancellor, reportedly called the vote a “straw poll more than an official tally,” and said that formal union recognition and students' employee status was a matter to be settled by the courts.

The lawsuit asserts that graduate assistants are public employees, and that such workers “have a constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” Christian Basi, a spokesperson for the Columbia campus, didn’t comment on the legal issue but told the Post-Dispatch that graduate employees are “an integral part” of the university, and that administrators have “continued to work collaboratively with graduate students to address many of their ongoing concerns.”

The university’s sudden -- and almost as suddenly revoked -- announcement last year that it was cutting health insurance subsidies for graduate students built on-campus momentum for a union. Emails recently obtained via open records requests by the Missourian, Columbia’s student newspaper, show how administrators scrambled days before students arrived on campus last summer to understand whether and how new federal guidance on the Affordable Care Act conflicted with health insurance subsidies for graduate student employees.

Leona Rubin, associate vice chancellor for graduate studies, proposed a series of options for dealing with the problem in one email, including, “We can just eliminate the subsidy program, save $4.5 million, and have everyone hate us (more). Legally we can do that since providing the subsidy is breaking federal law and we don’t need to adhere to our offer letters.” She added, “We need to move pretty quick on this as students are arriving and some may be enrolling in the insurance thinking it will be 100 percent paid. Also, our currently enrolled students with health care will lose it in 15 days.”