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DeKALB — Graduate and research assistants at Illinois public universities can now legally unionize with the start of the new year.

A recent amendment to the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act redefines the term “student” to no longer include graduate students who serve as research assistants or graduate assistants doing preprofessional work.

The amendment went into effect Jan. 1 after being signed into law Aug. 16 by Gov. JB Pritzker, according to the General Assembly’s website.

The change recategorizes graduate and research assistants as “employees,” which means they have access to the same labor rights and protections as others in this category.

Particularly, graduate and research assistants can band together to petition their employers in regard to collective grievances, wages, hours and working conditions, according to the law.

Graduate teaching assistants who were excluded from the definition of “student” before the amendment’s passage will have continued access to these rights.

State Sen. Laura Fine, sponsor of the law, said in a May 8 news release that she believes everyone should be entitled to negotiating fair terms of labor as an employee.

“I’m proud to be fighting to ensure graduate and research assistants can continue to do their important work with dignity,” she said.

A similar amendment proposal, introduced in February 2018 by then-State Sen. Daniel Biss, was vetoed by then-Gov. Bruce Rauner. In his veto message, Rauner said categorizing graduate and research assistants as employees would negatively alter their relationship with professors.

“This change overlooks the pre-professional, career-building nature of the training that graduate research assistant and other graduate assistant positions provide,” he said.

NIU spokesperson Joe King said the university is not aware of any plans for NIU graduate students to unionize.

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