NORMAL — Graduate students at Illinois State University said they made progress Monday by formally requesting the formation of a union, despite not getting their questions answered by university leaders.
At a rally outside of Schroeder Hall on the Normal campus, Trevor Rickerd, a doctoral student in biology from Marengo, announced Monday that organizers had a petition signed by more than 50 percent of the graduate students calling for union representation by SEIU.
“We stand now as a bargaining unit and demand fair contracts for our work,” Rickerd said. “This includes improvements in our stipends, both physical and mental health care and improvement of teaching conditions.”
There are several other Illinois universities with graduate student unions, including the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, where graduate students went on strike Monday after 11 months of unsuccessful talks with administrators on a new contract.
Some U of I classes were canceled while graduate students walked picket lines Monday.
Graduate Employees Organization co-President Gus Wood said weekend talks resulted in “absolutely no movement.” About 2,700 graduate students are represented by the GEO.
On the ISU campus, Rickerd led a group of about 30 graduate students from Schroeder Hall across the quad to the administrative offices at Hovey Hall and asked for Jan Murphy, ISU's interim vice president for academic affairs and provost.
Murphy was away from her office but Rickerd left a message indicating the group had met the qualifications to form a union and asked to be recognized as a bargaining unit.
ISU spokesman Eric Jome told The Pantagraph the students had the right to make such a move.
“The university respects the right of graduate students to explore the option of unionization for the purposes of bargaining,” he said. “We as an institution have negotiated with unions for quite a long time, with different unions in different employment categories, and so that is nothing new for the university.
"If that’s what the graduate students decide that is what they wish to pursue, we will negotiate.”
Zach Buckley, a graduate student in arts technology, said the time has come for the graduate students to band together.
“The College of Fine Arts is literally crumbling,” he said. “The students try to have a voice in changing that, but we are divided.
"Together, we can work with all of the necessary parties to actually create a space for the College of Fine Arts," he said. "It’s the only college that has had significant growth in the past year and part of what made that happen is workers organizing together.”
ISU recently spent about $6.5 million to repair the Center for Visual Arts and Centennial East and West and expects to spend $3 million more while waiting for $61.9 million in state funding to replace the buildings.
Buckley said the formation of a union was another step in the right direction.
“This is what the future is,” he said. “People on the Supreme Court, old white men trying to tear down workers, is old news. That is the 20th century.
"The 21st century is students," he said. "It is workers coming together to create unions for ourselves.
"I think about the Redbird Rising campaign here at ISU," he said, referring to a fundraising campaign launched last year with a goal of $150 million by 2020. "Today, grad assistants are the Redbirds that are rising.”
The leaders of the unionization effort say there is a variation between what graduate assistants are paid in different departments.
Geoff Ower, a graduate student in biology from Zion, said the organization of the union will give graduate students a better chance at making a living wage.
“I think we made progress and I am optimistic that we are going to get some things accomplished,” he said. “I’m not sure how long it will take, but I think we took a big step by getting the signatures we needed.”