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Illinois State University grad student Erik Zdansky of Peoria, who is working to organize a union for graduate assistants, discusses some of the issues involved with about 30 people Friday at Normal Public Library.

NORMAL — Graduate students at Illinois State University are close to organizing a union that would be affiliated with the Service Employees International Union.

The union would cover close to 500 teaching and research assistants, according to Trevor Rickerd, a doctoral student in biology from Marengo who is one of the organizers. He said they are close to having the 50 percent plus one signatures on cards that would make the SEIU their union without a vote.

Among concerns expressed by those involved in organizing the union are the variation between what graduate assistants are paid in different departments and the amount of those stipends.

The amount varies by department and whether it is considered a quarter-time, half-time or two-thirds-time appointment. They can range from about $400 a month on the lower end to more than $1,000 a month on the higher end. and they generally include a tuition waiver.

Geoff Ower, a graduate student in biology from Zion, said graduate students are not receiving a living wage.

“It's really important to stand together to improve the working conditions at ISU,” said Ower, one of the organizers.

But another graduate student, Adam Guenther of Wheaton, who is in student personnel administration, said he is concerned about unionizing all graduate students and standardizing practices in departments that are very different.

“It's politicizing issues that are already complicated as it is,” he said.

As for the pay, Guenther said, “First and foremost, we're students. … I know it's hard to make ends meet, but it's a part-time job.”

The university is taking a hands-off approach.

“From an institutional standpoint, that’s the prerogative of grad students if they are interested in looking into that,” said university spokesman Eric Jome. “We try to step back from that and not get in the middle of it.”

He said ISU has contracts with several unions “so the university is used to being in contract negotiations.”

Tenured and tenure-track faculty are not unionized at ISU, but the non-tenure-track faculty is represented through the Illinois Education Association/National Education Association.

ISU would not be the first public university in Illinois with unionized graduate assistants.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has had a graduate student union since 2003.

That union is negotiating a new contract. A strike was authorized by a vote announced in November, but no strike date has been set.

State Sen. Daniel Biss of Evanston, a Democratic candidate for governor, was in Normal on Friday to show his support for the organizing efforts at ISU.

Speaking at Normal Public Library to a group of about 30 people, Biss described the unionizing effort at “a fight for social justice.”

“There is a trend in higher education in America that mirrors a trend across America and that's a concentration of money at the top,” said Biss.

Referring to his own time as a graduate assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Biss said he questioned the “poverty wages” paid to graduate assistants but was told, essentially, that's how it's always been.

“It was just sophisticated nerdy hazing and there's no justice in that,” he said.

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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