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Watch now: Illinois State University Graduate Workers Union strike authorization vote starts

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Members of the Illinois State University Graduate Workers Union Janelle Smith, left, Edcel Cintron-Gonzalez, Trevor Rickerd and Steven Lazaroff, and ISU Student Senate member Djimon Lewis, stand outside Hovey Hall on March 25.


NORMAL — Members of the Graduate Workers Union at Illinois State University are voting this week on whether to authorize a strike, but even if the vote is favorable, it does not mean a strike is imminent.

The strike authorization vote is only one step in the process.

Voting began Monday and will end April 12. The vote was originally scheduled to start Friday but was postponed for logistical reasons, according to Steven Lazaroff, a doctoral student in English and member of the union’s negotiating team.

The union, which represents about 400 graduate teaching assistants, was formed in October 2018 and negotiations on its first contract began a year later. It is part of Local 73 of the Service Employees International Union. A federal mediator has been brought into the talks and the next negotiation session is scheduled for April 12.

The graduate workers are seeking increased pay; elimination or reduction of mandatory fees; an expanded, less expensive health care plan; and greater protection for international students.

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One sticking point is a proposed clause from the administration related to supporting strikes.

Graduate workers have interpreted to mean individuals could be disciplined, including being fired, if they express support for a legal strike by another union. The union staged a silent protest on the steps of the Hovey Hall administration building on March 25, holding signs saying the university was trying to silence them and take away their constitutional rights.

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In a post on its negotiations update page,, the administration said the strike language is consistent with what is in other campus bargaining agreements at ISU and at other public educational institutions and does not violate the First Amendment.

The administration said on the website that total compensation, including stipends, tuition waivers and health insurance fee reimbursement amounts to at least $18,302 for in-state and $27,215 for out-of-state master’s level teaching assistants with a half-time appointment and at least $19,310 for in-state and $28,223 for out-of-state doctoral level teaching assistants with a half-time appointment.

The union has argued that its members are not being paid a fair, living wage and noted that a tuition waiver can’t be used to pay rent or buy food.

At a recent Academic Senate meeting, many members withheld support of the university’s proposal to create a College of Engineering. They cited solidarity with the graduate student workers and a desire to see the contract resolved, according to comments made at Saturday’s board of trustees meeting.

The vote for creating the new college was 22 in favor and 18 opposed with 11 abstentions. The proposal needed 28 votes to pass.

Such votes are ultimately advisory, but other steps can be taken, such as the administration seeking a revote or providing written rationale for not following the senate’s action, explained Academic Senate Chairperson Susan Kalter.

ISU spokesman Eric Jome said Monday the administration would continue working with the Academic Senate.

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Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota


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