Grad Students Unionizing at Illinois State University | WGLT

Grad Students Unionizing at Illinois State University

Mar 20, 2018

Organizers of a union that would represent Illinois State University graduate students have crossed a threshold.

The students pushing for a union have received enough signatures to formally request representation from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

"We are currently in the process of doing a democratic evaluation of what we'd like to have written into our contracts," said Trevor Rickerd, a doctoral student in biology and a union organizer. "As soon as we get a solid base of responses from each department we can talk about what we'd like to do from there." 

Next steps include determining what would be in department by department contracts and then entering into negotiations with university administrators.

"I've been on food stamps for three out of my four semesters as a student. I'm still a student but done with coursework," said sociology grad student and union organizer Erik Zdansky. "For a 20-hour appointment, I'm making $9,014. Keeping in mind the poverty line for one person in the contiguous United States and the District of Columbia is $12,140, that's a problem."

Zdansky said during GLT's Sound Ideas that it's slightly misleading to characterize the workload as a part-time job. He said there are no set hours, for instance, and that he's often worked through the night grading papers. Graduate students also teach classes, prepare labs, and assist in research, among other duties. 

"Our working conditions as graduate assistants are really the learning conditions for undergraduate students," said Zdansky. 

Illinois State University graduate student union organizers pictured outside the ISU administration building, Hovey Hall.
Credit SEIU / Facebook

Future union members would be asked to pay union dues. Rickerd says the SEIU collects 2 percent of salaries for dues. A pending U.S. Supreme Court case, Janus v. American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, could allow workers to opt out of paying dues.

"I generally don't agree with that because I believe that will create not functioning unions," said Rickerd. "If people believe in it, they'll pay into it and get the representation they want."

Rickerd said if the case is decided in favor of Janus, then the unions would have to rely on the faith of the workers to pay for representation and contract negotiation.

Rickerd said he appreciated ISU staying out of the organizing process, calling it "fair." He thinks it resulted in a more honest process with workers deciding in favor of a union without having to worry about what the university administrators were thinking. In an email statement, an ISU spokesperson said the "university has a long history of negotiating with unions representing personnel in different employment classifications" and that ISU is "committed to a fair and equitable educational workplace for all students, faculty and staff." 

Both Rickerd and Zdansky say they were approached by the SEIU last summer and went with the SEIU because they were interested in advocating on students' behalf and creating a conversation about the issues. 

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