Graduate student employees are working with the Service Employee International Union, to form unions for teaching assistants and graduate assistants for a higher monthly stipend.
The Illinois State Board of Education certified the teaching assistant union on Jan. 22.
According to a union document from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, teaching assistants there are paid $1,425 monthly as opposed to SIUE teaching assistants, who are paid $896 monthly, according to the GA handbook. SIUC teaching assistants reportedly made a minimum of $1,306 monthly in the 2015-16 school year, according to their union contract.
“I was under an RA contract during the summer with one of my professors,” Chemistry graduate student Sean Ritter, of Jerseyville, Illinois, said. “In the summer, I transitioned into a research assistant position in the graduate program, then into a teaching assistant position for the Department of Chemistry during the fall semester.”
During the initial campaign, which began in 2018, SEIU sought to bring awareness of the wage issue to the campus. The grassroots campaign started by gathering teaching and graduate assistants’ personal information, including their addresses and phone numbers to reach out asking for support, according to Ritter.
According to Associate Provost for Research and Dean of the Graduate School Jerry Weinberg, the majority of the communication with the union has been through SEIU, who sent a Freedom of Information Act to request the listing of current teaching and graduate assistants with all available information.
“When I lived in Collinsville, one of the union representatives, Eric, came to my house. I had a talk with him, showed interest and he gave me the general details as to how the formation of the union would work,” Ritter said.
One major step in the process, according to SEIU organizers, is that the majority of teaching assistants and graduate assistants vote to either approve or deny their respective unions to come to campus.
“I think what’s really important for graduate students is that we obtain the numbers to form the union. As the teaching assistants on campus have gotten the numbers we need, individuals with professional responsibilities are pushing to have meetings with the SIUE administration representatives,” Ritter said.
As the cost of living increases, the graduate assistant stipends have remained stagnant.
“People are searching for an affordable school to get an education. As more people continue to flock toward SIUE and as the number of enrolled students continues to increase, it’s important for the union to ensure the workers are compensated properly,” Ritter said.
The last time the stipends were adjusted for the cost of living was prior to 2010, according to Dean Weinberg. The range for pay was increased, but there has not been a pay increase since he accepted his position in the Graduate School.
“As everyone from faculty members to students and people who live in the surrounding area knows, the cost of living increases. The payment towards SIUE’s graduate student workers needs to be reflective of this,” Weinberg said.
Ritter went on to mention how important it is for teaching assistants to get more organized in the next two weeks to send out messages to the administration about the goals they are looking to accomplish.
“As long as we have those numbers, I think that it’s important for teaching assistants to stay together, to keep talking and not lose sight of important issues we would like to address as a group and to maintain an overall camaraderie,” Ritter said.
SIUE teaching assistants filed for a union on December 7, 2018, meanwhile general graduate assistants are still working to officially file for a union.
“I got involved in the developing graduate assistant union through an organizer named Tyler. She approached me, talked about the process and where they were at in getting the union on campus. She explained to me how it would work and how it worked for other schools in Illinois. She asked if I was willing to sign up and support,” Biology Graduate student Miles Gossett, of Godfrey, Illinois, said.
Gossett said as a person who came from a long family of union members, he was sympathetic to this cause from the beginning.
“It’s important for graduate assistants and teaching assistants who are in their last semester to support the union because in this process everyone essentially gets to vote on whether or not the union gets formed,” Gossett said. “If you don’t, by default, you’re voting no because we have to reach the majority to form a union. Afterward, we have to be able to show support through students who are here to ensure it will be here in the future.”
According to Weinberg, the Graduate School is aware of how teaching and graduate assistants make less in comparison to universities in the surrounding areas. One reason he gave for the pay gap is how graduate students are in school for a short amount of time.
“Universities with unions have a number of doctoral programs. Majority of our programs are Master’s programs, so the majority of our students are around for shorter periods of time — two years, maybe three,” Weinberg said.
Weinberg went on to say he is always advocating for support and conditions for graduate students in general, especially graduate assistants who bring valuable sets of expertise to the university.
“I encourage any graduate assistant or teaching assistant reading this that if they haven’t heard about it but they think they would like to support the union, to reach out to one of the organizers or a graduate student involved in this process to fill out a card,” Gossett said.