Forming a union can improve graduate students’ work conditions

By Alma Garcia

The enactment of a recent law, allowing graduate students to unionize, is a huge victory for NIU Huskie graduate assistants and for undergraduates who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in the state of Illinois.

One of the 250 laws enacted in the state of Illinois this month, HB 253, amends the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act. This amendment categorizes graduate assistants at public universities who teach, research or conduct pre-professional work as educational employees.

This grants qualified graduate assistants the same rights as other university employees, including the right to unionize. The opportunity to organize and collectively bargain for improved salary, benefits and working conditions directly affects the quality of life of graduate assistants.

Graduate student Megan Kennedy is currently pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology and is a teacher within the Psychology Department. Kennedy said she supports the law and the possibilities for improved employee conditions that come with it.

“We make roughly, depending on your department, about $14,000 a year, which is very little to be able to afford rent, buy professional clothes, attend required conferences and still have a life,” Kennedy said.

Fair compensation for graduate assistants, she said, could also draw in more minority students to graduate programs.

“It discourages people from lower socioeconomic status from going to graduate school because they don’t have anything to fall back on when they’re making $14,000 a year,” she said.

It is important to keep in mind that, as university employees, graduate students juggle multiple responsibilities on top of their studies. A lot of them are already in possession of two degrees, Kennedy said.

“It’s very hard to justify to already have your bachelors, and a lot of people their masters, and to go into a system working for $14,000 a year,” she said.

Needless to say the status quo of value placed on the labor provided by graduate assistants and their qualifications is in dire need of review, taking into account the amount of classes taught by graduate students and money the university is saving on tenured professors.

Another graduate student, James Godowic, is currently pursuing a doctorate in political science while teaching within that department. He said he is also in support of the law and would like to see improvements in employee benefits such as health insurance.

“Graduate students, like undergraduate students, currently pay the full premium out of pocket,” Godowic said. “It would be nice to negotiate having all of it, or at least part of it, picked up by the university. It would help out a lot.”

Although the legislation does not address all issues pertaining to graduate assistants as university employees, it is undeniably a step in the right direction.

NIU spokesperson Joe King said the university is not aware of any plans for NIU graduate students to unionize, according to a Jan. 12 Northern Star article. However, unionization could benefit many graduate students on campus.